Flash Fiction / Pittsburgh / Blogging / Publication
Every writer needs material. Every writer has material. Remember, there are no boring stories, only boring writers. Maybe I was luckier than many who wanted to write short stories. Let's see. I grew up in the ghetto when steel was still king in Pittsburgh and TV broadcasted professional boxing every Friday night. There were several Isalys in the city and a vendor came around our neighborhood at night selling hot tamales. The three rivers and the bridges were here, but not Point State Park. There was the army, and Vietnam, and then community college with a campus of braless young women in very short skirts and dresses. You could score dope across the table in the snack bar. On the juke box in the snack bar was The Doors and many of the professors had hair as wild or as long as your own hair. Around the nation other young people were occupying buildings and marching in the streets. Everyone with a cause seemed to be marching in the streets and there were a lot of good causes. There were so many good causes that cities were set on fire and the National Guard was often called out.
I've had a lot to write about. I have good material. But a writer needs a vision, a voice and a method to mold the material, to give it form. The form may come from a "school of literature." This school may provide parameters which keep the writer from always starting at ground zero every time he or she begins a new story.
I teach Seminar in Composition to freshmen at the University of Pittsburgh (in 2004). I've been writing short stories longer than any of my students have been alive. I try to convey to them the fundamental impact writing will have on their thinking. I stand in front of them and say things like, "You really don't know what you think until you write it down." Or I'll say, "A cliche is evidence of lazy thinking." And then there's, "In your essays due next week be sure there is some thinking on the page." I constantly remind my students of the intimate connection between thoughts and words.
Recently, the class has been reading Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others, her masterful work on the impact photography has had on the modern human minds ability to comprehend reality. One of her arguments explores how for many people the photograph, the image, takes the place of the reality it represents.
When I'm not teaching I'm taking classes, too. I'm working on my MFA in fiction. There's my writing workshop and my film class. The film class is on American silent films of the 1920s. I'm convinced of the intimate relationship that thoughts, words and images have. Do you sense a patten, too?
Of course, Seminar in Composition is not a fiction workshop. It's a composition workshop; I try to demonstrate what I feel are the parameters of good old-fashioned "concise" writing. Concise writing is always highly esteemed. No matter what fields my students go into, what they learn in my class will help them to express their thoughts on paper in clean, lean prose. They will have a heightened awaredness of placing the right word, the right sentence, the right paragraph and the right punctuation in the right place. They will know the value of "no unnecessary words." In fiction, Compressionism does all of these things and much more.
The nature of the writing my students are doing is of necessity exposition; they must explain things. Compressionism reduces exposition to a minor, secondary role. Compressionism does very little explaining. Many readers might argue that exposition has always held the primary position in fiction, that it is the driving force of fiction. We compressionists are calling for a new fiction, a fiction that purifies the language, that reduces the language as nearly as possible to its true metaphorical roots, a language that is relenthlessly concrete, visual and unadorned. It is my argument that only an image-driven language can do these things.
Why image-drive? Consider the silent films of the 1920s. The silent film was a purely image-driven narrative. Even the inter-titles had to be read. The inter-titles were the exposition. A piano player or an orchestra might accompany the film but the film was purely image-driven. There was no sound.
Let me ask this. How do we dream? What are our dreams made up of? Our dreams are not made up of ticker tapes. They don't consist of a stream of words. They are not torrents of exposition, like this article. They are images. Of course all of our senses can be involved in dreaming but the main sense is seeing. And it is not seeing with our eyes. It is seeing with our minds.
Like many writers, I've read a wide spectrum of fiction. I've read the classics and the out-and-out trash. I've read genre and meta-fiction. I've read prose poems and flash fiction. Three writers spoke to my soul: Hemingway, John O'Hara and Raymond Carver. For me, Hemingway made the fictional world a real place through his use of concrete sense details and through his use of sequences of action. John O'Hara made me appreciate just how much weight good dialogue can carry and still sound natural to the mind's ear. From Raymond Carver I stole form. There is a straight line that runs form Hemingway through O'Hara through Carver to Compressionism. If you want to go back further than Hemingway there's Chekhov.
But now we must strip the language once again as periodically it must be stripped and return it to its concrete, distilled, image-driven purity. Image, thought and language make us human. In the cluttered, ultra-postmodern, apocalytic world community we live in, we must constantly remind ourselves of our commununal humanity. We all dream. We all dream in images. We compressionists must commit to image in all its wonderful clarity. Visual clarity must be our artistic truth. This is the essence of Compressionism.
What should be the length of the compressionist short story? For the purist, somewhere around 1,000 words. Of course, this is only a suggestion. But an image-driven story will always be able to say more, and more importantly to imply more than a non-compressionist story of similar wordage. We are not talking poetry here. We are talking about a prose that reaches beyond poetry, a prose that with luck reaches a third and fourth and even a fifth dimension.
What should be the ultimate goal of Compressionism? To produce work that revitalizes the language; to have the works of compressionist writers read by the many and studied in our halls of higher learning; to ultimately have the very short story take its rightful place alongside the poem, short story and novel as one of the great artistic forms of literature.