In this lesson we will be focusing on understanding and using ma spaces, which is the Japanese word for “in between,” in relation to very short fiction. In this workshop you will generate at least three new pieces of fiction that we will read and comment upon, read several stories under 1000 words, and engage in discussions about the art and craft of writing short short fiction. Our reading list will include Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Peter Orner, Shabnam Nadiya and others. I hope you will take this opportunity to truly explore and push the boundaries of your creative writing! My wish for you is that you come away with a better understanding of how to cultivate and nurture your unique voice in relation to what you see and write. As writer Alice LaPlante says, “Tell yourself the audacious thing that because you noticed it, it matters” (from The Making of a Story). And, now, without further delay….
“Fiction is the art form of human yearning, no matter how long or short that work of fiction is.” ~ Robert Olen Butler
What is Ma Space?
Take a good look at Edward Hopper’s painting, New York Movie. This painting, and indeed all of Hopper’s stark paintings, is a good example of the use of ma spaces. As noted above, ma is the Japanese word for “in between.” You could also think of it as “negative” space. In writing terms, it is what is left off the page; what is taking place off stage or out of the scene. One of the masters of this is short story writer Amy Hempel, several of whose stories we will be reading in this lesson.
“I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story.” ~ Amy Hempel
Going back to New York Movie. Think for a moment about how this painting uses ma spaces, and how these spaces create meaning, intrigue and movement (plot). I like how this painting shows us literally what is being left off the stage (the woman and the story around her). What “in between” spaces do you sense in this painting? What is being left off the painted surface yet is still an integral part of the painting’s story? What is the real story here? How does Hopper accomplish this?
In the Discussion and Comments area below, please comment in 500 words or less your thoughts on how ma spaces are used and shown in New York Movie, and how these spaces bring meaning, intrigue and movement to the story (or stories) the painting is telling.
Why the Short Short Story?
Fiction under 1000 words is also known as “flash” fiction. There’s also “sudden” fiction (usually under 1500 words) and “micro” fiction (stories 100 words or shorter). Regardless, as Peter Orner once told me, it’s all still fiction! Short or long, a story is, well, simply that: it tells a story. As Robert Olen Butler says, “Fiction is the art form of human yearning, no matter how long or short that work of fiction is.”
However, there are a few signature traits of very short fiction, which we will see in stories we read for this course.
- Most short short stories begin in medias rex, i.e.; “in the middle of things.” In other words, there is no preamble. Short short fiction does not concern itself with providing a set-up. It also does not usually spend time on backstory or showing a character’s past life by way of explaining present actions or circumstances. In short short fiction, the reader is forced to deduce everything that is left in the ma spaces; what is left unsaid.
- Thus, writers of short short fiction must be adept at knowing what to focus on, and which words to use. In this respect, short short fiction is most similar to poetry, in which each word, each bit of dialogue, is carefully chosen and placed. Grace Paley famously said that very short stories “should be read like a poem, that is, slowly.”
- In short short fiction there is no time to explain. Really, practiced writers do no explaining at all, but especially in very short fiction, a writer must learn to let the reader’s hand go. Effective use of ma spaces is what allows the writer to fully engage the reader (not confuse). A writer of short short fiction must learn to use metaphor to intimate and suggest.
- As the editors of Flash Fiction International say, “Flash fiction has always been a form of experiment, of possibility.” If there’s one thing you take away from this course, it should be that the possibilities of what you notice are infinite and deserve stories. There is nothing too great, too small, too weird, too unspectacular for fiction. It is simply a matter of skillful focus.
- Finally, and maybe most importantly, short short fiction brings the focus to people, actions, moments that may normally go unnoticed. Very short fiction exonerates the blasé, the tiny, the fleeting, because it provides a space for what the writer notices, and by this shows that life is much more than the sum of its parts. As Charles Baxter notes, fiction is a matter of vision; “of where you think reality takes place.”
A Short History of Very Short Fiction
As the editors of Flash Fiction International note, very short fiction has been around for a very long time. From “ancient Mayan rituals” to “Sumerian clay tablets” to the Bible, “flash wasn’t born on the Internet.” Short short fiction started appearing in anthologies in the ‘80s, and has been gaining in popularity since. At the end of this course, I will provide a list of literary journals and magazines that actively seek short short fiction. I hope you will consider submitting your work.
And now on to the good stuff . . .
- “Daylight Come” by Amy Hempel
- “In the Animal Shelter” by Amy Hempel
- “In a Tub” by Amy Hempel
- “Miss Pryme” by Virginia Woolf
- “The Fascination of the Pool” by Virginia Woolf
- “What She Knew” by Lydia Davis
- “The Fish” by Lydia Davis
- “In a House Besieged” by Lydia Davis
Discussion Assignment: Human Longing & Ma Spaces
Where are there examples of, as Robert Olen Butler says, human yearning in these short short stories? How do these short short stories use ma spaces. How do these spaces influence the story’s plot or movement? In the Comments and Discussion area, please give at least three examples of ma spaces for each story.
Write a story under 1000 words that deliberately skirts a main issue or problem. Use metaphor and carefully chosen and placed words to help you intimate what is actually happening in those “in between” or off-stage spaces. It may help for you to first make a list of what you want to be happening off-stage.