Thursday, November 19, 2009

Less is More

Nearly everyone is familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Do six words constitute a story, though?

Robert Swartwood asked that very question in a posting last Spring on Flash Fiction Chronicles.  And "what about those really, really, really, really, REALLY short stories?" he wondered.  "The, you know, six-word stories.  Are they considered flash fiction?  If not, what should we call them?"

Swartwood decided to coin a term for those "very, very, very, VERY short stories":  They should be called Hint Fiction, he says "because that’s all the reader is ever given.  Just a hint.  Not a scene, or a setting, or even a character sketch.  They are given a hint, nothing more, and are asked — nay, forced — to fill in the blanks"  And having defined it, he proceeded to establish the word limit:  "It cannot be anything more than 25 words."

Swartwood started a Hint Fiction Contest and over the course of the month of August received 2,463 submissions.  Here's a sample of one that received honorable mention:

by Camille Esses

He was allergic.
She pretended not to know.

The fever has apparently caught on.  Commenters on Swartwood's posting at Flash Fiction Chronicles in April announcing the birth of Hint Fiction immediately chimed in with their abbreviated "stories":

by Joseph Grant

One day, I met my future self. He had a gun. I shot him first. Wonder what I did to piss myself off so much.

I don't know about you but when I sit down to read a story, I kind of want more than just a "hint".  Literary teasers, okay.  Everyone loves a mystery, myself included.  But presenting the writing itself as something of actual substance seems, well ... a tad fraudulent.  I feel cheated.  "Where's the beef?!" as they say.  It sounds more like a vague idea for a story that one doesn't apparently have the time nor inclination to flesh out and actually write.  The reader's just going to have to figure it out from the hints given.  In other words, Hint Fiction merely provides an outline.  You have to write the story for yourself from there.

It sounds cool and trendy but Hint Fiction seems to me more like a bunch of orphaned blurbs out there looking for a blurbologist, to get proper placement--less "hinties" in search of a story than writers in search of   inspiration.  But what a concept!  Think how you could impress people, saying you've read a hundred stories this week ("hint" stories, that is); and then meet friends' incredulous gasp of disbelief with the disclaimer:  "Some of them were only one line long!"

That got me thinking, for some reason about one-liners--poems, specifically, that consist of a single line.   How many one-line poems are there out there?  This one came immediately to mind--Joe Hutchison's "Artichoke" (Windflower Press, 1979), which I've seen quoted a number of times.


O heart weighed down by so many wings.

What if you break that into separate lines?  Make it a three-line haiku, for instance? Placement of words, spacing, punctuation, all allow for a range of interpretations for the reader to arrive at a different meaning from that which the poet intended. Which brings me to consider how much form matters sometimes, both in how we determine to present a thing and the degree of  comprehension or appreciation we experience as a reader based on that presentation.  

What's even more interesting, though, is that the words themselves sometimes manage to shake off these often arbitrary restrictions and float directly to the consciousness regardless of their packaging.  I think the words in Hutchison's poem do that.  (And I'm not just saying that 'cause I adore eating artichokes--that slow, delightful process one has to go through, one delicious pluck at a time, to get to the pièce de résistance, its exquisite core.  To those who have never indulged in this pleasure, put off by what seems more like barnacles than 'wings', all I can say is, You don't know what you're missing!)

In general, are writers slowly migrating from one form of writing to another, their writings becoming increasingly shorter?  Steve Almond in Boston told Doug Holder recently that he recycled many "failed poems" into 500-words-or-less short short stories. Steve chose to publish his latest book, This Won't Take but a Minute, Honey, using Harvard Book Store's Espresso Book Machine. Audience members at his upcoming reading on December 2nd will be able to buy their own special editions of the book—to be printed up during the reading.  How's that for convenience!  So it seems not only is writing being 'downsized' but it's being churned out faster than ever before.

Is it really that far-fetched to imagine that we may one day soon have, on sidewalks everywhere, card-operated literary vending machines where you insert your card, and out drops a piece of fiction or poem. Just select a category:  Flash Fiction.  Hint Fiction. Flarf. CellStories, Prose Poems. Haiku. Long Novel. Short Novel. Essay.  Aphorisms.... They come in all flavors because the texts are edible.  (Otherwise the vending machine people would see little profit.) 

Reducing writing to its absolute minimum: are there any poems out there consisting of a single word, I wondered.

The answer is Yes.

"Picture the word 'tundra' slightly below center in an otherwise completely blank page, as it was presented in Cor van den Heuvel's book the window-washer's pail (New York: Chantpress, 1963). The poem also appears, similarly, in the first edition of his Haiku Anthology, 1974, p. 163.".[1]

Condensed, compacted, reduced-to-the-mimum writing is both easy and hard to execute.  It's easy to spew out a quirky mini-synopsis of a never-to-be-written, potentially longer story, and call it Hint Fiction; it's damn hard to write really good haiku.  Creative writing takes hard work.  The insight can be instantaneous, the intended imagery brilliant, the idea or concept innovative.  Now comes the hard part:  how to put all that into words.  And not just any 'ol words.  The choice of a single word can be the key to accessing the meaning--or the ruination of any desire to continue reading because of that little dose of suspected mediocrity.

The act of writing a poem and the act of reading it are two different animals.  And then there's ... the words themselves, swimming around in a nether world apart from both writer and reader, defying categorization-- though they are endlessly categorized, described, analyzed, taken apart and restructured, elevated, spit upon, stretched to their breaking point, vomited out unassembled, or paintstakingly condensed to a single syllable.

First there was Flash Fiction.  Then came CellStories. And now we have Hint Fiction.  Here's my Hint Fiction endeavor for the day.  Two poems.  (The rule says it can't be more than 25 words; it didn't say "no less than X words"). I'm going into extreme-writing-mode now and condensing, not to a one-liner, but to a one-worder (first poem) and--you know it's eventually going to come to this, don't you--creative writing stripped down to a single letter (second poem).  Okay here goes:





* this is not a Roman numeral 



"Hey, Fred!  Check out my new wallet-sized book: 1000 Hint Stories for the Chronically Rushed, selections of which will be coming out in keychain size in time for the Christmas shopping season."

--Apologies to Hint Fction writers everywhere.  It just isn't everyone's, er, cup of teaspecks.

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