Monday, November 28, 2011

Flash Fiction

I told someone I just had a piece of flash fiction published in a local magazine and he seemed puzzled. "Flash fiction?" I offered, "Short-short story? Sudden fiction? Mine is 449 words; flash is usually under 500 words." He still hadn't heard of it. I said if you go to you can find hundreds of examples, and those are all under 300 words. It is possible that the term originated from the 1992 book, Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, an anthology of stories under 750 words, those that fit on a two-page spread.

While I do not think it can be defined and boxed to everyone's satisfaction, flash does have some recurring characteristics. It packs details and action and story and character into one distilled package. Sometimes it's a meditation. Something large or very small can happen. It often has a twist or a turn at the end, perfect for bookmaking. The language can be rich, almost chewy. Lydia Davis is an author I admire who writes very short pieces that could be called flash.

Whatever it is or isn't, here my story "Tati's Necklace" in its online incarnation. If you live in the East Bay and an actual paper copy appears on your doorstep, you can find it on page 11 of the December issue of The Monthly.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Frame, the Crop, and the Composition

I'm traveling this week, and if you were to look at my first couple of photos you might think I was unable to go outside because I took them all through windows. I could make a whole book of pictures taken through windows that might build into a sad, poignant, fearful, or cozy story, depending upon the frame I use. You might not know I was traveling at all. How the pictures were taken is important: the conditions are telling my story. A different story unfolds if the pictures are taken only in a hospital, or three feet up from the ground, or interiors of just one house. These kinds of conditions tell you who a person is and how s/he sees, even though the person is not actually in the picture. The bookmaker also chooses the frame in which to see the story: using a personal condition as the starting point is an interesting way to begin a book.

Another kind of story comes from pictures that are cropped. Maybe we see a piece of a background, or an arm of another person. We are constantly looking around at the world and deciding to remember only some of it. What makes the cropping of a picture different from our memories? It may be obvious that what you take pictures of and what you make books about tell something about you, but the groupings of pictures can tell different truths and different stories, depending upon what you allow in and what you leave out. But whose arm was that? Another story.

The crop can be intimate. We are face to face with the subject. On the airplane I did not take any pictures, but I watched a man put a shopping bag in the overhead compartment, some greenery poking out. First, I was interested in the plant; was it a potted plant or a pineapple? I metaphorically zoomed all the way in thinking about this one object. I pulled back out as I noticed a flight attendant slipping down the aisle to help. I watched her face, but she did not look like this was an unusual occurrence. What else had people tried to close into that compartment? Panning all the way out I watched the man beaming at her as she turned the bag sideways and clicked the latch. And back at my seat, someone said, "If a member of my family tried to take a plant on an airplane, I'd yell." Four levels of story from near to far: the plant itself; the flight attendant and the man; the whole scene, completed; and the view from a distance. How close will you crop? How close will your narrative go? It depends on which part of the story interests you. You get to choose.

In formal terms, we also have the composition to work with. This is the most intuitive, I think. We can play with color, shape, line, depth, foreground, background, juxtaposition, and the list continues: our choices are many. For bookmaking we can choose to use images that all have the color green; that have curved shapes; that incorporate some kind of marks; that are landscapes; that are such micro images that we can't tell what they are, and on and on.

So many ways to shape a book, so many ways to create a visual narrative. We can create a new truth depending on how and what we like to sort, the frame we look through, and what level of story interests us.

National Museum of the American Indian

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Raging Characters

Who are the raging characters? The man who has arrived home late and drunk. The driver who goes through the stop sign and shouts at the pedestrian to watch where she's going. The student who leaves the door unlocked and then discovers her necklace is missing. The key to their rage, and why they are furious, not merely irritated, mad, or angry, is that they have each done something wrong and they know it. And often, they swear about it.

Language has always been connected with this rage. Often, very cruel language. What we used to call "foul" language, we could now just call foolish language. George Carlin's 1972 comedy routine Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television (yes, he is performing them at that link) is still funny, but the tameness of the words themselves is almost quaint today. Still, people are offended by some or all of these words.

The words are commonly used in magazines, on later night television, and flame online across the web. If someone complains and says that using these words is "unprofessional," say, in a conference presentation, the comeback may be "well, then you are not my audience." It's a defense. It must be your fault that you are offended, and if you are, go away and don't criticize my manners. Oh, wait. What was that? That last part was unspoken. If you tell someone not to use certain language they may feel you have criticized them. In this case, whether or not they know consciously that they are wrong, the rage rears up and you get a splattering mess of language all over you. The language has power partly because of the rage that accompanies it, partly because we continue to allow it to have that power.

But using the seven dirty words in a professional talk?
Would you show up for a professional conference in a bikini? Okay, I know.
It depends on the conference. Context, my dear, context.


Veering in a slightly different direction, but related: a friend just recommended I listen to Nikky Finney's acceptance speech (min: 16-22) for the 2011 National Book Awards for her book of poetry called Head Off & Split (something the fish seller said). On my way to finding the video I ran into a critical article that contained a quote that sounded a bit angry and as bitter as those opposed to affirmative action. But the U.S. can't run from the miserable, embedded history of slavery. The criticism seemed to be implying that we should get over slavery, that somehow we have gotten over it, that black women writers are now the mainstream, and therefore, when we give awards to black writers, feeling smug is a stock reaction "like laughter when yet another stand-up comic says f--k," and we should stop congratulating ourselves. Is that what we are doing? In the words of SNL's Weekend Update routine: "Really?" Does the article writer think we are overcompensating by giving awards to black women? That white males are being swept under the rugs? (As a counterexample: I look at The New York Review of Books and count how many women contributors there are each month. Not even close to half. Not even a handful.) Ultimately, if you watch the speech and read the interview with Nikky Finney, you can see how good a writer she is. Why be mad about giving her an award?


People are maddest when it's their own fault.
They are mad at themselves. They feel criticized, knowingly or not.
Remember that when someone projects and launches their rage at you.
Use it in a story and it will feel very, very real.

iBook, 2008

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Three Writers Find a Medium

Once upon a time there were three writers and they all thought differently. The first writer said, "Let me tell you about those two people over there sitting on that bench. He was wondering where she had bought her coat." The second writer said, "They were drawn together like curtains in the night. Loose, unfolding." And the third writer said, "I keep hearing them talking in my head. Her: 'What are you staring at?' Him: 'I think, maybe…' Her: 'You are looking at me as if I have food on my face' (she licks her upper lip). Him: 'You got it.'" It appears they were a fiction writer, a poet, and a playwright, all writers, each with a special approach.

In the creative writing program at San Francisco State University that (ifallgoeswellknockonformica) I am set to graduate from in the spring we have three genres (applying? pick one): fiction, poetry, or playwriting. When I was first applying I was trying to decide between fiction and poetry. I had mostly been writing poetry, thinking in metaphors, rhythms, images, and moments, but I had also re-entered the narrative world by writing down the story in every day. My friend and mentor asked,"What do you like to read?" That settled it. I wanted to read stories. The metaphors, rhythms, images, and moments could be incorporated into the stories.

As an MFA student at SFSU I found that I also needed what they call a "correlative," an area of study outside my major (fiction). It could be English, drama, history—really anything at all. I knew people doing urban planning, poetry, and environmental studies. I needed four classes in it, whatever it was. Since I was in school to write and learn,  I chose playwriting. I hadn't written a play since fifth grade but could it be so different from what I was already doing? If so, how?

Well, I found out how.

Each genre takes a different approach. Very strange. You can watch a scene unfold in your head for all three, but how you deal with that scene is what is characteristic to that genre. If you describe the action, include the dialogue, add in the characters' thoughts, you've got the beginning of a story. If you take what you see and connect it to something else, use metaphors and similes, look for the bigger picture, philosophise, perhaps, or choose words that sound right, feel right, and give a mood or capture one moment, you're likely starting a poem. If you watch the scene and you hear the dialogue and let the characters show each other and you what they want through their conversation in a dramatic, heightened way, well,  that means a scene is coming. (These are quick and simplified visions of what fiction, poetry, and playwriting are, but I think they capture the essences.) If you are having trouble writing, it is possible that you need to approach the material differently.

An exploration—whether you are a seasoned or beginning writer—is to try choosing a scenario, or find your story of the day, and write it from each of these angles: a narrative story, a poem, a play scene. You may find that the material works better in one form over another. I recently had an idea that seemed dramatic enough to be a scene, but as I began listening to the characters I found them boring. I switched to fiction mode and the scene turned into a one-page story; I was much happier with it. I had found the right medium.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

It's Not You, It's Me: Fiction and/or Nonfiction

We've all seen the notice: this story, play, film is a work of fiction, all characters are imaginary, any relation to living human beings is purely coincidental. And we laugh and say "Right. If they have to say that then surely it's all true." But we are wrong. Only some of it is true.

The most hilarious incidents in writing workshops are when a student blurts out "that part could never happen" and, of course, that is the one true incident around which the story was built. It is possible that it did happen, but for some reason it does not have emotional resonance with the reader.

The most powerful stories often are based on events that were truly felt. Even though the names are changed, the characters may be different genders, ages, or ethnicities, and the setting is elsewhere, the emotional content is the same. Which is where it gets tricky. Someone recognizes herself in the cloak. If it's a kindly portrait, she's flattered and pleased, if not, she's livid, hurt, humiliated.

Excuse me, these are words on a page. You say, "That character is not you. I don't care if you think it is, or if you are suspicious it might be based on you. It isn't you anymore." But, alas, you are a fiction writer, and you are not believed.

In art, if you create a portrait that the portrait sitter does not recognize (or thinks is hideous), she is hurt: "That doesn't look like me," she says. In fiction you are not intending the portrait to be recognizable; in a specific kind of art (nonfictive art?), you are. Expressive art is more akin to fiction: an interpretation, a transformation.

Fiction is a subset of nonfiction. Look, it's even in the word nonfiction, which is the negative, so fiction must be the positive. Fiction is a staging of a lived experience, a reimagining. It is hard to say what nonfiction is. We sometimes confuse it with reality. And the only reality I know right now… is that you are reading this.

Smiled Politely and Left, 2008

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Folded Multi-Page Book

A reader sent me a link to a video she made of the "Guest Book," a structure designed by Paul Johnson, which in turn gave me another idea. Here is a hybrid version: the Guest Book merged with the X Book. You get seven page spreads without any glue, thread, tape, or staples (please, no tape or staples, ever!) to hold it together. For content you only have to print on one side.

Fold a piece of paper into 16 sections: fold in half, lengthwise; fold both edges back to the center fold, accordion style; smooth out the paper, turn over; fold in half widthwise; fold the edges back to the center fold. Open flat.

For a portrait style book, turn the paper vertically for the cuts. For a landscape style book, turn the paper horizontally.

Cut a capital i along the folds: through, above, and below the center panels. Make two horizontal cuts at the edges, centered, one panel wide. (These are like the cuts for the Guest Book, page 51, MHB.)

Open the center flaps out like window shutters.
Fold up and in half, flaps inside and touching themselves on the same side.
Fold edge back, accordion style.

Turn over. Fold remaining edge back, accordion style.

Stand up the book.

 Push book together at the center (like the X book, page 32).

Wrap one page around for the cover.

There, I suppose, you have a GuestX book.

To see the layout of the page numbers more easily, click on a picture.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Blank Books, Book Art, Book Art Objects

When you begin a book you may not start with a fully realized intention, but you likely have an impulse. As you proceed, you may find that you are enjoying the binding and decide you will make a blank book. Or the materials suggest a larger concept which you develop into book art*: the pages meant to be viewed and read. Or the shape of the book suggests an obvious concept so you make a book that doesn't open or is more appealing as a sculpture: a book art object. Each of these kinds of books is gratifying to make. The question becomes: who is it for? That answer may shape further making.

It is much easier to make a blank book and release it to the artist's or writer's hands to fill. If you are a writer a blank book is valuable and has potential: ultimately, it is the writer who decides how to give a blank book meaning. In the New York Times column "Writers on Writing" from July 5, 1999 called "Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen or Just Any Paper," author Mary Gordon writes about how she chooses her materials to help her write. In one closet she devotes one shelf to notebooks: she collects these from her travels around the world and each one inspires her writing in a different way. If you are the bookmaker you have to concentrate on design and craft, but for a blank book you don't have to develop a deep concept; you are making a product. Making book art is the hardest because you have to do everything and you have to dig deep to do it.

The "webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language" known as xkcd by Randall Munroe posted this provocative comic recently, titled "Alternative Literature," which caused me to experience: a groan, a chuckle, a sigh, a nod, a head shake, and a cry.

What is real? What is true? In this case, I think it matters whether you are the maker, the writer, or the reader. If you go to the actual website, you can mouse around and find a hidden text that pops up when you hover and then stop your mouse.  In the "mouseover text" or "hover text" in this comic he gives an anecdote about truth in advertising. What I see is the dilemma of blank books, or the Emperor's New Books.

As a maker, if you want to try making a living at what you do, you must be a salesperson with the goal of selling work, or both an artist and a salesperson. It's not an either/or decision; it's just good to be aware of which goal you are working toward and what your intentions are. Making blank books with interesting covers is a wonderful way to experiment and to improve technical skills; I had fun making "Pop Art Journals" with soda cans wrapped around boards, but these are blank and ready for someone else to buy and fill. I would never enter them in a show because they may be crafted well, but beyond the novelty of the cover there is nothing there. Perhaps they will inspire a writer, but I cannot pretend they are book art. The book as book art should embody a complete and finished concept, inside and out. Book art objects with no content inside can work if they are elaborate and detailed, present a new view of the world, and are meant to be complete as they stand.

The above comic also reminds me of something that I hear frequently from those who are trying to make book art, "I want the reader to get whatever s/he wants out of it." Perhaps what they are really making is a community project, workbook, game, or mirror: all valid for what they are. I would argue, however, as I have done before, that the artist—whether making book art or book art objects—needs to give the reader something to grab hold of, a new angle to launch and catch his/her imagination, curiosity, and attention. Something meaningful, delightful, important, or audacious to think about. All kinds of stories. Something to come back to. Something that will last.

*I am including everything from fine printing to photocopied books to  one-of-a-kinds in the category of book art