Monday, May 13, 2013

In Praise of Brevity

And now for something completely different.

For those of you who found this blog through my thoughts on digital video matrix switchers, fear not! I'll be back later in the week with another "pixels" post about some aspect of AV technology. That is, after all, what I do and a real passion of mine. These are, however, the confessions of a pixel and ink stained wretch, so we oughtn't go too much longer ignoring my inkstained fingers. With National Poetry Month having just closed and National Short Story Month in full swing (and no, I don't know who names these. Just take it for what it's worth and enjoy it), the time seems right to talk about the place where the two come closest to intersecting: flash fiction.

Flash is loosely defined as "short-short", "micro-fiction", or anything under five hundred words or so. A traditional short story will usually weigh in at ten times that length. This is one of those things I like because it pushes against my usual tendencies; readers of this blog will ikely be unsurprised to read that I tend towards verbosity. The drive to condense - to take a story or idea or emotion and distill it to a single scene, sometimes a single sentence - isn't my natural one, but it is one that can yield striking results.

Back to flash in a moment, but here's a fascinating story that I learned during Al Filreis's Modern Poetry class from UPenn on the Coursera platform. Filreis is teaching this again in the fall, and I highly, highly recommend it (despite my misgivings about Coursera's utterly useless peer-review system). Ezra Pound was riding the metro in Paris one evening, and was struck by what he saw as the beauty of people's faces illuminated for an instant as a train ran past. So he wrote about it. And wrote. At one point he had ninetysome lines, but was still dissatisfied and didn't feel he'd captured the experience. So he cut, he condensed. In the end, he had this:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd
petals on a wet, black bough.

That's it. It's pretty much an English language Haiku - not in the formal sense, but in tone and content.
Flash fiction can be like that. One can take a single scene or a scrap of  dialog and leave the reader with a single, clear impression.  One can think of it as literary distillation.

Here's a flash experiment of mine; the seed was a typo in someone else's manuscript, changing the  phrase "shallow water" into "willow water". Any odd phrasing comes from a bit of an experimental game in attempt to not use any single word more than once. I can say more on this kind of thing in a later post; imposing artificial constraints like that sometimes can form interesting  results.

Strip slender branches of bark, soak in pure spring water. Mix lustrous hair, salty tears. Two drops fresh blood, three pages torn from your journal. All into the cauldron, slowly simmering, leaving air thickly scented;  decaying pulp, moist earth, echoes.

Plant a bough entwined with another stolen lock, bloody tooth. Pour hallowed willow tonic, whisper prayers to beloved memories.

No matter if it fails to take root. From my dungeon more eyelashes, skin, bones, and humours still to be harvested, and  salty flow from eyes that once held devotion.

If you want to see what others do with this format, there are plenty of options. The talented Andrea Trask has collections of short-short horror and erotica. The enigmatic Johannes Punkt has a blog in which he publishes delightfully varied and strange pieces of his own fiction. Many can be read in a small handful of minutes, but will leave you thinking.

Want to try it yourself and need some inspiration? Head over to the Google+ social network and drop in on Becket Moorby's Flash Fiction Project, where you'll find prompts, contests, and a vibrant community of writers.

This post is, after all, in praise of brevity, so I'll practice a touch of what I preach and leave you for now. AV friends, expect more technology later in the week. Writers, keep writing and readers keep reading.

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