How can short short prose be like poetry? As we explored in last week’s lesson on “A Little Fable” and Freytag’s Pyramid, a short short story (flash fiction) can be as rich in narrative arc as a novel, if and only if, we give our readers enough information and guidance to help them form the fuller story for themselves. In “A Little Fable,” we did not need to see the specifics of the maze, the color of the walls, the detailing of the mouse’s fur or the cat’s fur in order to understand the full narrative arc. We understood that the setting was a maze. Perhaps you saw white walls or gray walls or perhaps your maze was dark. Did your mouse search for a piece of swiss or cheddar? Was your cat a tabby? Perhaps it looked like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, with its wide grin. Whatever your specific details, you were able to form them within the schematic details of Kafka’s narrative arc:
- Setting: Maze
- Characters: Mouse and cat
- Conflict: Mouse v. Maze, Mouse v. Cat, Mouse v. Trap, Mouse v. Self (arguably the most important conflict)
- Rising Action: Search for escape, Search for cheese (did you imagine cheese in the trap, too?)
- Climax: Mouse facing cat
- Falling Action: Cat instructing mouse
- Resolution: Cat eating mouse
- Denouement: What was your individual denouement? Perhaps it had something to do with Mouse v. Self? Perhaps it asked the important question: How do we navigate the challenges and dangers of our lives when caught in such all encompassing mazes? Or you experienced a fate v. free will resonance?
Learning to create these sparse schematic narrative arcs in which a reader can imagine individual details
Read the following prose by Diane Williams and the poem, “Leaving the Empty Room” by Stephen Dunn. Then read the poem again. Read it many times. One of the core strategies to reading and exploring short short fiction, prose poetry and poetry is multiple readings. These “brevity forms” are short, concise, full of subtexts and metaphors. They are meant to be read again and again and in different settings. Read them in your kitchen. Read them in the bathroom. Read them at night before sleeping. Read them in a museum, a crowded cafe, at work on your lunch break…. Short short forms allow us the ability to employ critical reading skills in an easy to achieve repetitive succession.
As you are reading the following work, consider how each work presents the same narrative and schematic details as Kafka’s “A Little Fable.” Consider how they differ.
“Dangeresque,” “The Widow and the Hamburger,” “Her Leg,” “Jasmine, Ewing, Erastus, and Keane,” “Jewish Folktale,” “Affection” by Diane Williams (The Brooklyn Rail)
“Leaving the Empty Room” by Stephen Dunn (The Paris Review: Issue 196, Spring 2011)
Now watch the following film and performance of Dunn’s poem. Consider how this rendering might be different than what you imagined as you first read the poem. How does the film rendering inform or change your views of the poem? (Do not watch the following video until you’ve read the poem a few times and considered the details of the poem for yourself first.) After you watch the Dunn video, consider how Williams’ work might be rendered visually, too.
- Craft Technique: When reading a new work that inspires you to create your own, you might consider creating a visual representation of the original work, either photo collage or short film, if you prefer film. Through this multiple modality exercise, many writers find that the media inspires further creativities. Example: You might consider creating a character collage using googled celebrity photos, actors who you imagine might play the characters if the text were made into a film. You could also find YouTube clips of films that have a general mood, tone and setting you imagine for your narrative. (Here is a mashup of Robert De Niro moments. These sorts of A List actor mashups are great craft resources to keep in your pocket. As you’re fleshing your characters out and looking for mood and tone regarding facial attributes, affects, voices, you can bring your characters to more life by actually assigning actors to them and keeping a character sheet with photos, urls of videos, etc. You can also have fun with this. Consider a humorous piece in which the protagonist is described as having the face of De Niro and the voice of Katherine Hepburn or vice versa. When writing short short fiction, incorporating a few recognizable place names, such as actors, can be a great technique in describing character, though, one or two instances can often be enough.)
This week, you will complete three assignments:
1. Choose one of the above works under the “Reading Assignment.” List the narrative arc elements for that work. Use the above example for Kafka’s “A Little Fable.” Identify the setting, rising action, complication, climax, reversal, falling action, resolution and denouement. Some of the details of this arc will be fleshed out and added by you as the reader, and that is okay. The short short forms are engaging your creativity and intellect to form narrative and story. This reader response to reading is what Nobel Prize Winner Eric Kandel calls the “reader’s share” in his arts and aesthetics book The Age of Insight: A Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain.
2. Now, restructure your chosen reading so to make it your own. Replace details. Add details, if it is under 1000 words. If you chose Dunn’s poem, turn the “lines” into paragraphs. Keep it under 1000 words. This rewrite of a master’s work is an excellent way to study and further explore your own voice. Don’t worry, by the end of this assignment, you will have made this work your own. (Of course, you would not want to keep the structure of the original work as this would be plagiarism; however, the systematic study of a master writer is one of the best ways toward gleaning out your best narrative voice and individual aesthetics.)
3. Finally, read your rewrite aloud a few times. Let your mind marinate in it. Then put the exercise aside. Do not look at it. Open a fresh document or take out a new piece of paper. Now, you are going to write the work, again, from memory. In this rewrite, you are not regurgitating the words and original, rather, you are letting the rewrite of the original to linger creatively in your mind, giving you foundation, as you create your own, original work. When you have completed your first draft, look for areas where you may still be regurgitating the original work. Replace any sections with your own details. Remember, we are studying and exploring master works as springboards for our own work. We do not want to copy or plagiarize. Do not worry as I will consider all of this as I read and give notes on your submitted manuscripts.
When you submit this story, I will be looking at surgical detail–i.e., precision of sensory, cyclical allusions within the full narrative arc, and more. As this can mean many different things for different voices and narrative arcs, I will identify more specifically what this means for your story, in your voice, directly on your manuscript.
Discussion | How Can Poetry Affect Your Short Short Prose?
Why would exploring poetry be helpful to you, in general, as a short short story writer? How did the poetic exploration of Dunn’s poem impact your prose? Do you have a favorite poet? Have you explored this poet’s work as inspirational for your short short fiction?
Rae Bryant’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, released from Patasola Press, NY, in June 2011. Her stories and essays have appeared or will soon be appearing in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence, Italy. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. Rae is a member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, AWP, NBCC, CLMP and Johns Hopkins Alumni Association and is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.