Thursday, August 12, 2010

Death by Story

Jonathan A. was more nervous than he could remember being in years. He was sipping espresso in the lounge behind the small auditorium classroom where he was due to speak in a few minutes. The audience would be a mix of journalism, literature and creative writing students. Undergrads mostly. Jonathan was here at the invitation of Alex, a creative writing faculty member at this private midwest college.

"Thanks for taking this on, Jon. I may call you Jon? Jonathan seems so formal."

"Of course. Thanks for asking me."

"It'll be a mixed bag out there. We announced your lecture and students with a variety of backgrounds are attending. I expect what ties them together is that they're almost all would-be writers. Short stories seem to be the favorite form around here, and short non-fiction pieces. You know how it is, we try to keep up with the times, adapt to the changing literary and journalistic landscape. All of our students post their work on blogs. We require that. We preach short, tight prose. Very few novels-in-progress among this bunch, I'm afraid. It's the Zeitgeist."

"I'm a novelist, you know. It's what I know best. I haven't written short fiction in years." Jonathan put his mug down and loosened his tie. It was warmer than he was used to.

"Of course you are. Two books published and your most recent one ... what was it called? Doing well, I hear."

"Natural Man. It's a story about...."

"Right. I remember now. Marvelous work. Well, are you ready? It's time."

Alex gave Jonathan a brief introduction before the half-full auditorium. "So, I give you the author of The Natural Man, best selling author Jon A. Be sure to subject him to your usual grilling after he speaks." Then Alex disappeared from the auditorium.

He introduced himself and talked briefly about his novels. "I understand that most of you are writers. Could I see a show of hands?" As far as he could see, all hands went up. "Now, how many of you have been published? Paid or not, you've seen yourself in print." After what seemed to be some confusion and hesitation, about half the audience raised their hands.

"Excuse me, Mr. A," said a young man near the front. "Sir, 'Print' has me confused. Does that include self-publishing and posting our work on our blogs?"

"Ah. Well, no, I wouldn't consider self-publishing the same thing as having your work accepted by an actual publication."

"But sir, online newsletters and magazines ...."

"Okay, yes. If they're serious online publications, with some sort of editorial staff using critical judgment." Jonathan paused and looked out over the audience, who seemed uncomfortable, some quietly murmuring to each other. "So, given that definition, how many of you feel your work has been published?"

Only a few hands this time.

"One more question. How many of you are actively working on a novel? I mean with the real intention of getting it published some day?"

Total silence. No hands.

Jonathan was stunned. These were writers? Individuals who love expressing themselves with words? Back when he was in college, that question would have resulted in near-unanimous raised hands.

"I'm puzzled by that," he said at last. "Don't any of you have a story you want to tell the world?"

"Sir," said the same young man, "We write stories all the time."

Jonathan looked intently at the young man. "Please tell me what you think a story is."

What followed was a half-hour of back and forth on the topic of stories, what made one, how it could be best expressed, what were favored mediums and methods, even a bit of personal philosophy about why these people had chosen to major in their fields. Story telling for most of them, it turned out, meant something very different from what it meant to Jonathan. For most, a story almost never amounted to more than a vignette, an incident, a glimpse, a hint. For those few who were published, length was rarely longer than one browser page, maybe 600-800 words. Many were much shorter than that.

"Let me ask you this. Please think about it before you answer. If you were to tell the story of your life to someone you didn't know - I mean the whole story, the real story - how long would it be? How many pages, or words, or how many minutes or hours would it take you to tell the whole thing? If you think you have an estimate, please raise your hand."

Hands soon went up. Jonathan picked one at random.

"Sir, I think I could tell mine in, oh, around a thousand words or so. I could probably trim that down too, once I had the words on the screen."

Another: "A page and a half, maybe two. Three to five paragraphs. That should do it."

Another: "I did this recently when I met this guy at a bar. It took, oh, I don't know, eight or ten minutes. Pretty much covered everything, I think. He did too, in maybe five minutes."

"That's it?" replied Jonathan. "Ten minutes for your whole life? A thousand words? Folks, that's maybe three pages of type script. Are your lives really that empty of content? Not to mention meaning?"

Jonathan dismissed the group. He sought out Alex and apologized for what felt was a failed lecture.

"Don't worry about it, Jon," Alex said. "Those kids, they're just doing what we've been teaching them. To prepare for the real world and a limited job market out there. Fiction or non-fiction, it's all the same. No one wants to read long works anymore. It's all about the short hit, the summary, the sound-bite. I mean, short or long, they're all stories, right?"

Jonathan, a deep sense of despair overwhelming him, shook his head. "Those kids don't know what a real story is. Hell Alex, they don't know their own stories. Their lives are little more than sound-bites now. God help them. God help us all."


  1. The most frightening part of this for me? (Though, should I really start a comment with such a phrase?)

    "Those kids, they're just doing what we've been teaching them. To prepare for the real world and a limited job market out there...."

    A fear I have is that "modern education" is focused at a shorter time frame than I imagine education should. Perhaps there was a certain amount of it always, even "back in my day".

    That said, perhaps we shouldn't knock "sound bites". I've long believed that people such as Oscar Wilde and Samuel Johnson were masters of the form - they just called them something different.

    Happily, sales of dead-tree and electronic books seem to suggest it will be a while yet before what you write about here will come to pass.

    Still, a well-crafted tale about writing and writers and where it all might end up.

    Well done.

  2. I enjoyed this perspective. Maybe the students will all be flash fiction writers..:)

  3. I do think things are not quite this bad, Kevin, but I know from experience that prep for the work world almost always trumps liberal arts and thinking for thinking's sake.

    And I appreciate the discipline that comes with doing short fiction successfully. I'm just a bit nervous that there's very little reason for talented writers to push themselves beyond these relatively easy short-form works. Contests to tell stories in 55 words? C'mon. Stories need room to flower. Thanks much for the feedback.

  4. L'Aussie: I fear those students already ARE flash fiction writers, and little else. Therein lies the danger, in my opinion. Thanks for the read and feedback!

  5. Thought provoking and I fear you're right. Especially in this comment - "Stories need room to flower."

  6. Thanks Cathy. I certainly don't mind the challenge of writing tight, clear stories in as short a form as possible. But I'm a die-hard believer in the idea that every story has its own optimal length. This FAD of creating stories that must be under so many words is, I think, ultimately deadly to the writer's imagination. It promotes a kind of story-telling laziness.

  7. This is a wonderful, tight story that also scares the hell out of me because it seems to be true. Attention spans are reduced to a few sentences anymore. Writing flash fiction helps me to tighen my phrasing but I will always be a novelist first for the richness of the tale.

  8. Thanks for the validation, Laura. I know this story is an over-simplification, an extreme case, but I believe the point is valid: we're training ourselves out of something vital, the very ability to think through a complex real life time line. Some say the novel form is dying. I think it's only just beginning. If so, it's possible its existence as a tool for self reflection and psychological growth may be fragile.

  9. I'm relieved that things are nowhere near this bad. We routinely see bestselling fiction that is more than double the 50,000 word pace thrown up by NaNoWriMo. George Martin, Stephen King and JK Rowling can publish 800-pagers that are sure to hit the bestsellers lists, and there are plenty of writers who wish to be the next scion of fat books. Flash fiction is growing in almost the opposite way from what you described in this flash: it's a result of individuals and desires on the web, not college education or the publishing market. Magazines like The New Yorker treat them as throwaways and filler before their features. If writers only do this, or only care for this niche, then that's a shame. Flash is a good element for the versatile writer, and there are great flashes, but doing things in miniature has taught me a lot about word use and pacing in longer form fiction. If we're serious about the craft then we ought to experiment with everything, and how each form reflects on everything else. I'm a little saddened for those who aren't like that. In that, I think we agree.

  10. Great comment, John. I think we agree too. More than anything, I just needed to know that some of the better flash writers I've been privileged to meet via #fridayflash are serious enough to at least have considered the hazards as well as the advantages of flash writing. And I'm now well satisfied that's the case. You, Laura, Cathy and all who responded to my challenge are clearly serious writers unlikely to be trapped so easily. Best respect to you sir!

  11. Thought provoking read. I love writing flash, but love reading a meaty novel. Now, to just come up with that novel idea.

  12. Thanks Peg. If you want it, if you visualize it, it'll come to you.

  13. This really is kind of frightening, but also thought-provoking as well. Clearly many people consider themselves writers who only post on blogs or get published in magazines started by friends or themselves. They've never dealt with an editor or a rejection. In my professional guise as a senior editor, I was advised to use a pen name because some of the writers who come from this online world of automatic acceptance and zero critique, had made death threats to some of the editorial staff. It's insane, and thankfully it was only one or two troublemakers who were later fired, but still this never happened in print media.

    The other thing is that some publications won't accept works that have been published on blogs, and that's a grey area that many are still exploring. I keep my novels and books in progress on private blogs to avoid this so that only my beta readers can access them.

    God helps us all indeed.

  14. Rachel, I needed that real-world feedback, thank you so much.

    My other stories, not so short, and my novel in progress are all on private blogs too.