The special brevity edition that turned out to be too long
because writing short is hard.
A reader recently wrote me to say he thought my newsletters should be shorter. He said there was so much to read it was hard to focus on one thing, which also hindered him from sharing the newsletter1.
I agree with the feedback. I often think I’m including too much stuff each week. Sometimes when I open an email and see how bulky it is, I immediately close it (and sometimes delete it), even if I love the author, even if I know I could skim it (truth be told I’m tired of being a reader who skims so much).
The length of this newsletter comes from my exuberance. I want to give more. I want to think about more things. I want to be more. I guess I’m a bit like the host who wants all of his guests to be satiated with food and drink, to be drunk with gusto and good conversation, and then to leave with a party favor or two and some leftovers.
Or I’m a bit of a maniac. Probably both.
So I decided to make this newsletter a grab bag of items about the topic of brevity—and, specifically, about flash fiction, stories less than 1,000 words—as a test. And I thought it would be brief. Except my exuberance on the subject of brevity made it long (I did just write a book, The Art of Brevity2, so I have a lot to say).
Brevity is difficult. It requires a lot of thought and exertion. As Mark Twain once wrote, “I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.”
Because brevity is sexy
Dorothy Parker said, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”
A flash story is the lingerie itself: an invitation to come hither, a promise, a hint.
Because brevity makes you feel more
A short, short story is the tip of a needle. It’s designed to prick.
Because brevity can crystallize everything in a moment
A short-short is the moment you hit the brakes. It’s called “sudden fiction” for a reason.
Does length matter?
“A novel is just a story that hasn’t yet discovered a way to be brief.”
~ George Saunders
A novel is like a Southwestern city. You have so much land to build on that you can just keep building further outwards, relishing the sprawl and disregarding any notion of compactness (a potential hazard of urban planning and novel writing). Writing a short-short is more like building a tiny town hemmed in by mountains and the sea. You have to be very careful with each element you add. You have to eliminate excess. You have to be more intentional in the ways you construct each building and street.
So my question: Can you write a novel in a single page? Would it still be a novel?
Can a short story feel as big as a novel?
What do we retain after reading a novel, whether it’s a bulky tome like War and Peace or a slim novella like The House on Mango Street? We carry fragments, moments, impressions. Our minds erase the weight of text, the lacings of all its connections, and form their own images, with “an assemblage of referents that turns into a parlor game,” as Roland Barthes put it.
As a result, there’s no reason a short story can’t seem as large as a long story in memory.
One question of brevity
How do you take a constraint and turn it into an opportunity?
“Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini,” said the poet Paul Muldoon. A straitjacket wasn’t truly a straitjacket for Houdini. It was a space that forced him to explore his body in different ways, to realize different possibilities for movement.
The same goes for a tiny story: to write one, you have to move differently within a constraint.
Now it’s time to subscribe.
How much of a story can be left out?
Writer Deb Olin Unferth says that the short-short story forces the writer to ask not about what more to add, but what to subtract. “The short makes us consider such questions as: What is the essential element of ‘story’? How much can the author leave out and still create a moving, complete narrative? If I remove all back story, all exposition, all proper nouns, all dialogue—or if I write a story that consists only of dialogue—in what way is it still a story?”
This story is so short it’s almost not there
“Hourly,” by Scott Garson, is one of my favorite all-time stories.
“They gave me a job at Halloween Town. Strip mall with vacancies. Sad. I was a wizard, vaguely swinging my wand. ‘Everything change,’ I commanded.”
Because maybe a story is smoke
“ … the realized one-page fiction must move palpably beyond the page, like a ghost self … The one-page fiction should hang in the air of the mind like an image made of smoke.”
~ Jayne Anne Philips
The image of the wizard swinging his wand outside the Halloween Town at the strip mall hangs in the air like smoke…
A final word
“A good short-short is short but not small, light but not slight.”
This week’s writing exercise
Sarah Manguso asks her students to study empty time, and themselves in empty time, by sitting in silence for an hour or so. Then she asks students to write five sentences about what has happened without using the first-person pronoun. No feelings, just observations.
It’s not meditation. She says she’s “trying to inflame their attention until that’s all they are: attenders to the actual.” By doing this exercise, she says “the autobiographical echo chamber sort of fades into white noise, and when the listening or thinking self stops being conscious of the writing or recording self, a kind of pure sensibility is able to emerge.”
Why are photos good as writing prompts?
“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”
~ Diane Arbus
What secret exists within this photo? Write a story in under 300 words about this photo (and share it in the comments below … I’d love to read it).
This week’s video: because Lydia Davis is such an amazing, peculiar, wonderful short story writer that words can’t do justice to her, so you have to say too much when talking about what an intriguing gift her stories are, and I could say much more because I love the workings of her mind so much …
Because, hey, my collection of 100-word stories, Fissures
I think of this as a little like trying to give your friend a bag full of all of the clothes you just cleaned out of your closet when you really should take it all to Goodwill, except maybe for that one special shirt she might like.
The Art of Brevity is being published in early 2023. I hope you’ll buy it. And read it. And think about it as you write short, short, short stories.