Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Workshop: G. Walker

Heart's Desire

Dead birds washed up on deck, caught in storms, doomed. The ornithologist touched a salt water-sodden dead bird with the toe of her boot. Spider watched her write GREEN THROAT in her notebook and kick the dead bird across the slippery deck.

The ship had recently taken on a staff of performers. Spider pulled her cart aside to let them pass in the corridors. One evening Spider was followed into the hot cave of the laundry by a boyish little acrobat.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” the acrobat demanded, hands on her hips. Her smooth gold hair slid like a curtain across her heart-shaped face. Spider said nothing.

“You don’t speak English?” the acrobat scowled. The machines rumbled in the bright-white room.

“There’s something wrong with you,” the acrobat said. “Let me reach in and undo it.”

The acrobat pressed Spider down in a cart of sheets. The odor of bleach engulfed Spider, filling her throat and skull. She closed her eyes and saw in her foggy mind her heart’s desire: her favorite dead bird, ATLANTIC PUFFIN, its parrot bill and webbed feet bright as clotting blood, in the ornithologist’s hands, cradled in those hands forever.

creation note: This story was inspired by the phenomenon of exhausted migrating songbirds collapsing on boats at sea.

Bio: G. Walker is a birdwatcher, teacher, and writer living in Richmond, Virginia.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Workshop: Adam Marston

These People

These people have tried talking. They think it is an effective way to communicate. For personal reasons, they do not talk anymore. If one of them wants something, they bang their skulls together. The theory is if their brains are closer together, a thought will transfer. If one of them needs something, they cry while doing this.

creation note: This is one piece from a serial. In this form, I think it can be difficult to distinguish between poem and story, and that they can be one and the same.

Bio: I’m enamored with the idea of poetry and fiction being friends, if not symbiotes, and my influences include Danielle Dutton, Sara Veglahn, Lydia Davis and Zachary Schomburg. My work appears in Dogzplot and is forthcoming in The Northville Review. My new blog is Big Strong Words.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

from Dawn Corrigan

Size Matters

Reading through the archives here at the VSF blog to date, I'm struck by the preoccupation with, well, size. By my rather cursory and unscientific count, at least a quarter of the two-dozen or so essays that precede mine address, in some fashion, very short fiction in comparison to not-quite-as-short-fiction. Most of them seem to feel a need to defend the honor, as it were, of VSF.

This anxiety about short forms, this worry that when it comes to writing, greater length really does = greater quality or more substance or SOMETHING better, is nothing new. It’s an old story, anyway, in poetry. After his first book was panned, John Keats rushed to produce his first epic poem, “Endymion,” to prove he should be taken seriously. (It didn’t work. It would take the 33 lines of “To Autumn” to do so.) Many other poets have followed suit.

Despite the fact that I prefer “This Living Hand” to “Endymion” (though the opening of the latter is a thing of beauty, I’ll admit) I struggle with the size question myself. Even as I write this I’m performing word counts on the essays that precede mine to make sure mine holds up. The notion that my life will be worthless unless I produce a few novels covers me like a pall at all times.

But here’s the thing about novels: they’re so full of description. I read my favorite books over and over again, and I love Watership Down more than I should be willing to admit, but every time I read

The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood,
where the ground became open and sloped down to an
old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading
patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s
mercury and oak-tree roots …

I think the same thing: Where are the bunnies? Can we please get to the bunnies already!

Now that I’m attempting longer forms as a writer, I better understand the role that passages such as the one above serve, in terms of setting pacing, tone, mood, etc., in a book-length work. But there’s still a big part of me that wants to get to the bunnies. Even now when I read, I tend to skim, or skip entirely, passages devoted to setting and other physical descriptions, or even action sequences. Where it’s at, for me as a reader, is with dialogue and character. (“Scenery is fine—but human nature is finer,” John Keats said.)

When I think about what I like, and don’t like so much, as a reader of fiction, I’m reminded of the advice Seymour Glass offers his brother Buddy in Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction:

If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write
that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer.
You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and
ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world
Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s
choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly
believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and
write the thing yourself.

The wonderful thing about VSF is, it allows you to shamelessly write the thing you most want to read. It lets you get right to the bunnies—whatever those happen to be for you. Insists upon it, in fact.

Bio: Dawn Corrigan has published poetry and fiction in a number of print and online journals. She’s an associate editor at Girls with Insurance and an original member of the writing collective The Nervous Breakdown. She promises all her stories don’t end with characters balancing plaster animals on their hands, just because two of the three below do. Thanks to Laura for the invitation to participate in this cool project.

Read “Our Happiness” at Monkeybicycle

Read “Life Force: A Fairy Tale” at Pindeldyboz

Read “Pink” at Wigleaf

Sunday, November 8, 2009

from Lauren Becker

Very Short Fiction: Fragments of “Real” Narrative?

John Freeman, editor of the literary journal, Granta, authored a recently-released book entitled The Tyranny of E-mail. The primary thesis of the book is that that the relentless flow of e-mail with which we deal has left us disconnected from one another, reduced our attention spans and decreased our abilities to live with mindfulness and deliberation. I find it difficult to disagree with his observations and am certain that his book is deserving of its many impressive reviews.

However, in listening to a recent radio interview with Freeman, I found myself extrapolating, somewhat indignantly and perhaps without merit, that Freeman might consider both the writing and reading of very short fiction to be among the unfortunate results of living in the fragmented age of e-mail. Though his observations about writing were made in support of his position that communication is no longer as thoughtful and meaningful as it was in the past, I couldn’t help but hear some of what he said without considering it in context of his role as an editor of a literary journal.

Most directly, Freeman stated that, in dealing with a “grazing” style of reading, “we never get into the deep submersion that you get in a long-form narrative,” using novels, biographies and narrative poems as examples. He went on to say that “when you give yourself over to a text in that sense, you engage a part of your imagination which is crucial … to developing empathy and a supple understanding of how people interact with the world.” My frustration reached its pinnacle at this point, as I thought of numerous writers who demonstrate and evoke those very elements masterfully in remarkably few words.

These, along with other indirect statements, left me wondering whether Freeman’s opinions were an indictment of my preferred form of writing. As I did not wish to draw such conclusions unfairly, I e-mailed, (in a true instance of irony), a question to the station, by which I asked Freeman whether it was his opinion that very short fiction is a byproduct of the disruptive e-mail phenomenon he describes, and is therefore less legitimate in that, by nature of its brevity, it cannot capture the imagination as longer form narrative can. I provided the context of my own writing experience, and proposed that this form encourages significant imagination, in that its readers must be capable of inferring information that, in the interest of conserving words, its writers do not actually state.

My question was not addressed on air. To find if there was, indeed, any foundation for my suspicion with regard to Freeman’s views on very short fiction, I listened to the interview again, pulling relevant quotes, some of which I cited above. I found additional evidence of that foundation in his assertion that the book Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, was successful in large part due to its presentation in short sections, most of which did not exceed 1200 words, a word count that dwells in or adjacent to that of very short fiction. He referred to Dan Brown’s use of very short chapters to make the same point.

Still curious, I reviewed Granta’s submissions guidelines. I do not subscribe to Granta, nor have I recently read an issue, and cannot attest to the length of the fiction it generally publishes. Its submissions guidelines state that there are no restrictions as to length, and Duotrope indicates that Granta accepts work consisting of fewer than 1000 words. I am, however, doubtful that Granta publishes a significant amount of very short fiction. Though my arguments are circumstantial, I believe that his statements indicate that Freeman, the editor of the well-respected journal, might be dismissive of very short fiction, especially that which is published online, as a means of communicating anything more than the “200 pithy short e-mails” that he crafts daily.

I hope that I am wrong in this regard; if I am not, I hope that Mr. Freeman looks at such quality literary journals that highlight very short fiction, as Wigleaf, Quick Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly and Vestal Review, and realizes that this form has the potential to demonstrate exceptional depths of imagination, empathy and understanding of human relationships within its own restrictive word limits. Though the nature of today’s frenetic means of communicating is inarguably disruptive, it does not follow that our ability to create effective narrative is likewise compromised.

Bio: Lauren Becker lives in Oakland, California. Her active imagination and overdue deadline on this commentary led to her admittedly ill-supported postulations that ensure that she will never be published by Granta. Her work has appeared in PANK, Opium Magazine, Wigleaf, Pindeldyboz and elsewhere.

Read "A Boy" at Monkeybicycle
Read "A Simple Explanation" at Storyglossia
Read "Where is San Diego?" at Opium Magazine

Monday, November 2, 2009

from Ellen Parker

With all due respect to those writers who say they revise each flash piece
again and again--and when they say this I assume they mean they write a
draft and then take it out sometime later and look at it and revise it and
put it away and take it out again, over and over during the course of an
extended period of time--I have to admit that I do not always work that way.However, I take a very long time--at one sitting--to write each piece. I
rarely have a piece that just "flies off my fingers." I take hours at a
stretch to write a piece, and all I might end up with is a little flash! But
I revise extensively as I go. I examine each word and sentence as I write
it. I ask myself: Is this really what I want to say here? Are these the
words I want?

I have written a lot of flash and I have read a lot of flash. I know all the
easy ways to take a story. So I ask myself: What can I say here that will go
against the grain? That might surprise people? (That might surprise me!) I
am always aiming for freshness--and unexpectedness. I want readers to go,
Whoa. I didn't know this is where we'd end up. Or: Look at that word!
Sometimes a flash can succeed on the strength of one well-placed word.

Spending hours at a stretch looking into your own head, probing, searching
for freshness, honesty, novelty--see, right now I'm seeking one more word; I
am going to think and think until I find that one right word that I want
here to complete this thought--buffoonery? Drollery? (Sometimes I'm just
looking for funny bit.) Spending hours at a stretch looking into your own
head, probing, searching for freshness, honesty, novelty, drollery--it's
exhausting. Words, phrases, sentences get added and then shitcanned. For
perhaps an entire half-hour I'll just sit there, trying to come up with one
goddamn word! By the time I've written the flash (hours have passed), I've
flipped through--examining, trying out, ridiculing, adoring--hundreds and
hundreds of words.

Then I'll put the flash away for a long time. It might be months. Sometimes
years. And then I'll look at it again and I'll go, Who the hell wrote this?
I can see exactly where it goes wrong. I'll fix it. Then I'll put it away
again. And then maybe an editor or someone I know at Zoetrope might go, Hey, Ellen, what happened to that flash you wrote a long time ago? You know, the one that used the word "chiffarobe"? I'm like, It's sitting in my computer. And they'll say, Can I have it? And I'll go, Yeah.

Bio: Ellen Parker is a fiction writer and the editor of FRiGG, an online literary magazine that runs flash, short stories, and poetry.

Read "So Long" in SmokeLong Quarterly

Read "Something Blew" in SmokeLong Quarterly

Read "Summer TV" in Press 1