Thursday, April 29, 2010

The World in Miniature: The Border Between Here and There

by Bryan Russell

The Border Between Here and There

They sent the soldier to guard the bridge because of the troubles between the two provinces. The soldier had a snappy uniform, and he marched snappily across the bridge, back and forth. He held his rifle firmly, dreaming at times of the rifle going Snap! Snap! and of receiving a medal.

People crossed the bridge, back and forth, despite the troubles. He smiled at the people, but not too much. He had a job to do. He met a woman from the Right Bank, and smiled a little wider. He took her out on Friday nights. She loved to dance, and he loved her, and so they danced and danced.

Then the soldier met a woman from the Left Bank, and she was beautiful and he took her out every Saturday night for long walks along the river. The beautiful woman was filled with wanderlust, and they would hike up into the hills. In the autumn the leaves were bright red.

When the bomb exploded on the bridge it was a surprise. A piece of shrapnel cut the soldier perfectly in two, from groin to head. The right half of the soldier landed on the Right bank, while the left half of the soldier landed on the Left Bank. Miraculously, the soldier survived, but the doctors couldn’t put the two halves back together. The Army gave him two honorable discharges.

The right half of the soldier stayed on the Right Bank, and he called on the woman who danced and made him smile. The left half of the soldier stayed on the Left Bank, and he called on the beautiful woman with the wanderlust.

Yet the right half of the soldier found, with only one leg, that he was no longer much of a dancer. The woman who danced smiled in sympathy, for awhile, and then she started to dance with other people. Eventually she stopped coming home, and he heard she went out dancing every night of the week. He started painting and became an artist. He painted autumn trees with red leaves like fire.

The left half of the soldier, meanwhile, soon found that the beautiful woman was not happy: it was hard to love a man who could not wander. He tried to accompany her but he could not keep pace while hopping on one foot, and it was hard to talk amidst all that bouncing. He needed his breath for each jump. Soon the beautiful woman walked by herself, farther and farther afield, until one day she simply kept walking and the horizon swallowed her. The left half of the soldier became an architect and built a new bridge over the river, a bridge with great arches that reminded him of people dancing.

Every year the left half of the solider and the right met to buy a pair of boots. A business arrangement, no more. They had little to say to each other, but why pay full price for a pair of boots when you could pay half instead? Yet, as the years passed by, the artist and the architect talked more and more as they found they no longer had much in common.

Monday, April 26, 2010

I See the World in Beginnings and Endings

What are we to ourselves but a story? We are a thing, of course, a body, this solid object that moves about in the world. But a dog has such a presence, a rock, a tree. We are something more, even amongst other people. We are ourselves. Unique. And that uniqueness is understood best as our story of ourself, of our life and who we are.

We are, in a sense, our memories. We are as much lies as truth. Our memories are tricky things, as full of fiction as they are of fact. We might think of ourselves as objective, but that objectivity always floats in a vast sea of subjectivity. We, each of us, recall things differently. It was a black car. It was a grey car. It was a green car. It was a blue car.

We lie to ourselves, we lie without even knowing it. Fiction is a necessity of proper functioning. The vast complexity of the world, of our experiences, is overwhelming. The sheer weight of sensory perceptions is enough to bury us. Every event, every word, every breath. It is too much. The mind seeks to organize, to make sense of all that is around us. It begins to cut corners. A dodge here and there. Who will notice?

We are born. A great panoply of life unfolds. We die. But this story is difficult to understand. It’s a feast we can’t taste all at once. The mind breaks things up. It makes stories of our experience. It designates beginnings and endings. The story, for instance, of how we met our most beloved significant others. When does it start? What led us there? Can we even comprehend the multitude of influencing factors? This is beyond us. And so we tell a story to ourselves. One day I was walking along and tripped over this strange person, who looked up at me…

We fashion stories, consciously and unconsciously. We narrate, we simplify, we condense. Memory is a simplified version of reality. I met her, but this other goombah liked her too, I had to be convincing and I was, we started dating, we got married… we have delineated a shape: the beginning, the conflict, the rising action, the climax, the denouement. And what if details slip us? We seem to remember what makes sense, we fabricate, we guess, we approximate. We are our memories, we are the stories we tell ourselves, and we want it to be a good story. We remember what’s best for the story. We make it work. We make it fit.

This is us, this is our past. A weave of stories, of shapes we’ve placed on our own experience. This is where we’ve come from. And if this is how we shape the past, it is also how we predict the future.

Our minds extrapolate. They can turn from the past to the open possibility of now and of what is yet to come. What if that person on the bus has a gun? What then? A beginning. The mind extrapolates, pulling elements from the millions of stories it has already created to fill out the blank spaces of possibility. That couple talking… what are they saying? Are they in love? What is the nature of love?

Extrapolations become more complex. The conscious and the unconscious blur together (if they were ever truly apart). We have creation. We want a story, and we want to make it real. Not simply a veil of possibility draped between firing neurons, but something solid. Something we can experience, and something that others can experience too.

We tell a story, shape it with words. We want more than the unconscious shapings and simplifications. We want to find meanings and patterns in the vastness of experience. We want to actively search it out. We filter the world. We make beginnings and endings. We sift for meaning, for purpose. We distill ourselves in fiction, and yet if we do it well the stories we devise might be more true even than the lying facts of memory.

The world calls to us and we make beginnings and endings.

We tell a story.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The World in Miniature: Mortimer

by Carl Grimsman


Tristan and I look down through clouds, smoke, down a steamship’s smokestack. A woman who is a white dog, on the deck below, sees us. “Look!” she says, “Two seagulls. Shoot them!” Her husband, a brown dog with muttonchops, a pork pie hat, and a blue suit raises his spyglass. He and several others grab guns. Tristan leads us wheeling into a cloudbank. We hear muffled popping.

Later the white dog is on the poop deck with cold tea and an umbrella. She’s laughing—ooo hoo hoo hoo—as her husband washes her feet in a basin. She looks over the side and sees Tristan and I, we are dolphins. “What pretty dolphins,” she says, pointing daintily. “Shoot them.” Tristan leads us into a dive as bullets ploop around us.

I’m an octopus and Tristan’s a giant clam. We’re blowing bubbles at the bottom of the sea. The white dog is swimming towards us. Her husband has a harpoon. I hide behind some coral. Tristan closes his shell.

I can’t believe the stupidity of these people—the casually murderous white dog and her blindly dutiful hound husband. I shout in a loud bubbly voice, “Do you do everything she says just because she says it?”

She points vigorously at me. The husband, eyes bugged out, cheeks fat with air, swims forward aiming the harpoon. A baby whale races by and bumps him. He drops the shaft and puffs out his air. The white dog keeps pointing. The husband’s face is sorrowful as he propels himself to the surface; he couldn’t please her. She glares at me, then follows.

They’re walking along the beach. She wears a sun dress and carries a parasol trimmed with ball fringe. He, with trousers rolled up, is picking up the shells she points to. “What have I done to hurt you?” he says bending.

“Tut, tut,” she warbles. “You’re the perfect husband.” He holds his shirt like an apron to carry the shells.

Ahead they spot a whale, lying on the beach, panting. “Are you the whale that knocked me?” asks the man, hurrying over, dropping his shells.

“Save me,” cries the whale. “Push me into the water!”

“It is the same whale!” shouts the white dog. “I recognize the markings.”

Tristan and I circle over as sea gulls again. The man leans against the whale with all his might.

“No! No!” yells the lady. “Shoot the whale!”

The surf comes up. The whale budges a little. “Help me,” shouts the man.

“Stop!” shouts the woman. She wades out. “What kind of a man are you?” she screams, and wallops him. The whale moans and gasps for breath. With a mighty heave, the man rolls the whale over. It swims slowly, then is gone with a tail flip.

The man pulls out his pistol and flings it into the sea. He glares at the woman and stalks past her. After a few moments she hurriedly follows. “Mortimer, Mortimer…”

Monday, April 19, 2010

My Bones are Made of Book Spines

While in the forums the other day I read a question that’s fairly simple and yet quite profound: How do your reading habits influence your writing? I think there are a lot of good short answers to this question, but I thought I’d attempt a longer one.

I think what we read has a huge influence on what we write. It is part of who we are. My bones are made of book spines, and my skin from a million slender pages. What I read is a huge part of who I am. These stories are some of the building blocks for how I see and construct my world, and I often understand my world in relation to these stories. We take in stories and make them part of ourselves, and yet we shape our consciousness in the same way. Who we are, mind and memory, is shaped. We give it form and structure. It is how we make our lives cohesive and understandable. Our lives, our own minds, are the story of us… as we tell it to ourselves. It is the inter-braiding of a thousand stories, fictional or not, and this is the world as we each know it.

This is bound to be reflected in our writing. If we are shaped by stories, the stories we shape in turn will have reflections of that world. Echoes, shadows, pale reflections… this is who we are, and we can never completely escape that in our writing. And yet conscious and unconscious thoughts can shape the writing, can move it, can push it in new directions and make new connections. This is our imagination acting on that vast story that forms our consciousness.

And so we make a new story out of ourselves. We move within it, always making, always creating. And yet it can be difficult. We can wrestle with the stories we know (and with our own “self” story). Newness can be a challenge.

We change as readers and writers. We move from story to story, and each one leaves a little mark… or a big one. We are not the same readers we once were. I have difficulty with simplistic writing, clunky writing. It might be a fun story, but I lose patience if the writing doesn’t work. I can’t get lost in a story if the words don’t take me there.

And this is true for our writing, too. Such shifts are usually reflected. Input, output. Stories we reflect, and mirror, and change. Refracted at strange angles… and yet the source is there.

We wrestle with it. I remember starting my current fantasy novel. I wanted a fantasy novel… and yet not something typical. Epic fantasy with a literary, character focus. And so I started writing.

Yet it was not right. The voice… was simply the voice of similar novels I’d read before. These typical novels, seeping together in bland style. Little stories that had become part of me. They’d created paths in my head. Ruts, if you will, from long wear. Certain things were done certain ways. Certain stories used certain language. No, it wasn’t right. Wasn’t new. It was not a true reflection of what I wanted, of my own self story.

I had to write it over. I stripped the conventions away and wrote the same actions in a style and structure that was ultra literary. This wasn’t right either, but it freed me from the ruts. It jerked me out of repetition. It widened the view on my own story.

The truth, the voice, was somewhere in the middle. Writing, writing, writing it again. And soon the voice was there in the rough. There was still an echo of those hundreds of fantasy novels I’d read, and yet there was more, too. Echoes of Tim O’Brien, Anne Patchett, Ian McEwan. Echoes of other writers and other forms, echoes of a million stories that had gone into me and now sought release.

This is what makes each story unique. Not the singularity of a story, but a unique multiplicity. I know writers who fear reading. If they read while writing the other voice seeps in, takes over their own. But I try never to fear this. If you write long enough you will find your own voice. And what is that? It is the ability, I think, to reach in and grasp all those stories, the vast self story, rather than just a single one. Your voice ceases to echo a single voice (the deafening voice of a mentoring love), and rather pulls itself out of a vast choir, stealing a note here and a note there to craft a new song, a new hymn on the possibility of story.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The World in Miniature: The Mating Calls of Frogs

by Bryan Russell

The Mating Calls of Frogs

A whisk of green motion in the grass. Elin looks down. She’s seventeen and saddened by the number, by the perilous ambiguity of it. It’s a shiftless number, not quite one thing and not quite the next.

Blades of grass move. A blinking frog, green skin amidst green grass. Two eyes, and an oddly hollow bubble beside them, as if a third eye had once been attempted. The frog makes a little jump, skewing to the left.

It has seven arms. On the left side it has the normal two limbs, but on the right side it has five, a cluster of reaching hands and sticky fingers.

They are all like that, Elin thinks, kiss or no kiss. So many hands, so many sticky fingers. Carlos taking the pictures of her, laughing over her naked shoulder. Elin never knew. Not before the rest did.

They all took a grab at her after that. John, Kev, Marcus, Dick. Dick. They should all be named Dick, the world simply being honest with itself.

The frog jumps its tilted little jump. It blinks at her.

Elin brings her foot down on the frog and it explodes. Blood squirts out and stains the grass. Seven arms wave out from beneath her sandal.

Her sandal is stained and damp. She lifts her foot, studies the wet ruin in the grass.

She takes off the sandals. The grass is cool and sharp on her feet and she walks, walks a thousand miles on a road of grass, walks to Mexico until her feet reach the hot white sand and the salty Pacific rushes up to wash them clean.

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Ted, your emotions are all locked away," Cindy said. Ted nodded. "That's why you love me so much, Cindy."

I think one of the things we want our stories to do is to make an emotional connection. We want the reader to feel something, for our words to shape an emotional experience for them. We want to bring this emotiveness into our text. We talk about emotions, explain the feelings of characters, use emotive language and metaphor... and yet sometimes it is the absence of these things that creates the strongest emotional connection.

I recently read Imre Kertesz's Detective Story, and it's a slim and terrifying little novel. It's powerful, and yet part of its power is in its starkness. There's a detachment in the writing (that fits the first person narrator) which sets up the action very clearly. It's spare, with little description, little in the language to emote. It's the story of a South American government agent who is now in prison for torturing people under a now defunct regime. He relates a case of a father and son who were brought in for questioning.

The narrator is distant... and yet the story shimmers with emotion and feeling under the surface. It is that very distance, that sparcity, that allows this. The simpleness of actions set out clearly. Words, movements. Freed from the clutter they glow with meaning. There's an intensity to this, a sense of vividness, a flash of colour in a barren scene.

It's the use of white space not just in text, but in the story itself. Much of the subjective is stripped away, the wash of meaning imbued by the impressions of characters, by the narrator, by the writer. It is objective storytelling, in some senses, with the story pared down to its most basic. Words and actions. And their isolation brightens rather than dims their impact.

I've also read (Nobel Winner) Kertesz's brilliant Fatelessness, and it had a similar restrained power. It's a story of the holocaust, of a boy in the death camps. It, too, is told at a remove, and yet the horrors of the experience are all the more horrifying for that removal. There is no explanation of the actions, only the actions themselves, starkly revealed. Here the story must stand on its own feet, naked and unadorned. It must hold itself up, an orphaned boy in the selection line. No one will help that boy.

Certainly this is not the only way to tell a powerful story, and yet I find it interesting. The simplicity of it. I realize some of my other favourites embrace this technique. Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, many of the stories of Cormac McCarthy. Though much of McCarthy's descriptive language is lush and extraordinary, the story itself is sparely told. You rarely, if ever, see inside the character's heads. Actions are simple and carefully delineated. He makes little attempt to interpret his characters for the reader, little attempt to decipher their words and actions.

Does anyone else have any favourites like this? Or, conversely, what are the stories that strike you profoundly, and how do they create their emotional impact?

Friday, April 9, 2010

The World in Miniature: The Hole

by Susan Quinn

The Hole

The spaceship crashed into the mega lizard and spewed tiny multicolored detritus across the carpet. Sounds of mayhem splashed around the wreckage as tiny fingers collected the pieces. A high pitched whisper pulled my flashed look down, but it was only the demise of another plastic villain.

Three boys piled on top of each other, grappling and grinning as they wrestled for the prized magic wand. A squeal escaped them. Would a sister scowl at them from across the room? Or clamber with small but determined hands and feet to the top and decry herself, Victor! But there was no pink flash in the pile or haughty bouncing curls, only boyish voices and happy grunts.

We curled up for the last book of the day, the end of a stream of brightly colored tales of trucks and dragons. His slender fingers and unpolished nails held fast to the page, lest I turn it too quickly. Short bristly hair brushed my arm. A vision of tendrils floated up to tickle my nose.

The bustle drained from the day and filled the night with quiet forms in car shaped beds. I ran my finger along the endless circle dangling from my chain, stubbled with three small heads and reaching arms. Complete. Full. And encircling an empty space that held whispers of girlish dreams.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Girls Are Made Of Sugar And Spice...

I read this post today and it got me thinking about gender divisions among writers. The gist, I guess, is that it seems like a lot of the online writing communities (whether forums or blogs, etc.) are dominated by women. Now, that's solely a subjective analysis without hard fact, but it does seem to be repeated over and over as far as I can see.

This got me wondering about what the overall divisions are among writers. How would writers break down by gender? How would published writers break down by gender? And how might this be changing? If far more women are becoming involved in such communities... is it an advantage? Will more women be published on account of this?

And yet, at the same time, I think back to my experience in University. I have two degrees in creative writing, and that means I attended a lot of creative writing workshops. And these were always heavily skewed towards the male. The female writers were always a minority.

So perhaps it's less about the quantity of interaction, but more about the type of interaction. Are women drawn more to communal groups? And men more to result-oriented approaches, such as the acquisition of a degree?

Obviously these are generalizations. There will always be exceptions. But it does make me wonder. Are there differences in the typical writer's journey based on gender? Do men, perhaps, start early and pursue degrees, etc., and either make it or fall away? Do women more often start late, after pursuing work and family first? I'm not really sure, but in the absence of any objective data I thought I'd turn it back on all of you. What's your experience of the writer's journey? When you think of all the writers you know, are there differences in how the men and women have pursued the craft?

Reminder: We're open for flash fiction submissions! Check the sidebar under The World in Miniature for details.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The World in Miniature: Stalin's Boots

Okay, I'm gonna have a new addition to the blog. The World in Miniature, flash fiction about anything quirky or strange. Not too long. Blog-bites! Like little seafood-filled* pastries... all hot and yummy.

(* And if seafood ain't your thing, please mentally stuff in a desirable foodstuff of your choice. Something delectable.)

So, I'll be writing a bunch, and posting them every Friday (or something like that). Here's the neat rub: everyone can play along. I'm gonna be open to submissions. If I get a bunch, I won't be able to post them all. But hopefully I'll be able to put up some good ones. And at the end of the year maybe we can have a vote for a winner and a prize! I like prizes. If you're interested in getting some short shorts out into the world (that means short, people. I'm thinking 50-400 words) you can send something to me at:

If this will be a reprint (if your story is previously published) just make sure you have the rights back, as I don't want to step on any toes. Yes, this last line is a clever segue, as the first story will be...

Stalin's Boots

There were two pairs of boots, identical in hand-crafted leather. Black, of course. They were from Italy, but Joseph never told anyone this. He’d seen Mussolini wear a pair once. A Soviet agent had taken Joseph’s foot measurements south in a locked briefcase. On the return trip the agent had two pairs of boots. Shhhh, Joseph told the agent, a third cousin. After his cousin left and he tried the boots on, Joseph decided that a trip north might do his cousin good. Far north. After all, a third cousin was not a first cousin. And cousins weren’t entirely trustworthy to start with.

Joseph took turns wearing the two pairs of boots. On Monday he wore one pair, on Tuesday the next. They were always cleaned for him, polished to perfection, sure hands working the scented oil deep into the leather. The rotation of pairs helped. One day of wearing, one day of cleaning. Sure hands did the work, sure hands at the far end of nervous heads. Never were boots treated so well. A nervous head once wept about the Gulag for two hours while oiling and buffing.

It was cold there, apparently, and neither pair of boots liked the idea. Their dreams were of olive trees and just the thought of cold might crack their leather.

Sharp steps. They liked the imperiousness of that, the clacking of heels. Stalin was careful the way he walked. It had to look just right.

When Joseph died only one pair could be selected for the leader. No more alternating. Eternity was just a long day with the same pair of feet.

The other pair waited. A few strange feet tried the boots on, nervously, hopefully. But Stalin’s feet were oddly shaped, the toes all bent in from the pressure of communism. The boots were left standing.

After awhile the boots started to march around, ghosts in Italian leather. Quick step, march. They stepped on a washer-woman’s fingers, grinding down until a knuckle cracked on the clean floor. General Smetkin got a kick in the ass. That Jew colonel Lemontov got a boot in the throat for telling a dirty joke about Joseph.

No one said anything. This is just the way things were.