Wed 28 Apr 2010
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 African-American in a black ghetto in Pittsburgh when steel was still king in the city and television televised professional boxing every Friday night. There was a chain of ice cream parlors in the city and a vendor came around our neighborhood at night selling hot tamales. The three rivers and the many bridges across the rivers were here but not Point State Park which would come later.
There was the army and Vietnam and then a local community college with a campus of bra-less young women in very short skirts and dresses. You could score dope across the table in the snack bar. On the jukebox in the snack bar was the music of The Doors and many of the professors had hair as wild or as long as your own hair. Around the nation other young people occupied buildings and marched 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 story.
I teach Seminar in Composition (this was in 2004) to freshmen at the University of Pittsburgh. I’ve been writing short stories for 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 mind’s 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 attend classes, too. I’m working on my MFA in fiction writing. I attend a writing workshop and a film class. The film class is on American silent films of the 1920s. I am convinced of the intimate relationship among thoughts, words and images. Do you sense a pattern, too?
Of course, Seminar in Composition is not a fiction workshop. It’s a composition workshop. I try to demonstrate for my students what I feel are the parameters of good old fashion 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 awareness about 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 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 secondary role. Compressionism is a word I made up. It means: using words to paint a picture that tells a story. It is the kind of writing I try to do. In Compressionism there is very little explaining.
Many readers may 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 near as possible to its true metaphorical roots, a language that is relentlessly concrete and unadorned. It is my argument that only an image-driven language can do these things. Why image driven?
Let’s go back to 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.
Let me ask this. How do we dream? What are our dreams made up of? Our dreams are not made up of a stream of words. They are not torrents of exposition. They are images. Of course, all 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.
Guy Hogan is a Vietnam War veteran and the editor/publisher of the Pittsburgh Flash Fiction Gazette. He received his MFA in fiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 2006. Compressionism: The Pittsburgh Stories is his ebook of flash fiction.