lessons

Composition & lessons in flash-fiction

“Plot is the last resort of a good writer.” Stephen King

I’m fairly new to writing flash-fiction. I only came across this method of writing a made up piece to a prompt this time around in my intermittent blogging endeavours.

Before that, it was all more or less true stuff I published. Before that, the last time I made up a story was for my “Ordinary Level” English Language examination – the trick there was to make up at least three stories in advance, trusting that one could be bent into the shape asked for on the exam paper. It was called “composition” in my schooldays – what is known as today, I wonder? I can’t say I enjoyed it; probably because, like all school work, I saw it as a chore or an imposition. And I don’t think I received much praise or encouragement when I tried (okay, there was one teacher who wrote at the bottom of one composition, in red, how much she enjoyed it. Unfortunately, she was only my teacher for one year).

Now I can’t think what was in my mind when I had a go at blogging a piece of flash-fiction a couple of years ago. But I enjoyed it a lot. Having read consistently since my teens, and nearly always trying good books too, it doesn’t surprise me that a time came when I thought I’d see what it was like to write fiction; if not a novel, then a short story; if not a short story, then a tiny piece of flash-fiction.

On doing it, it made me realise I’m not especially into the idea of a story. What do I mean by that? Well, casting back to school classes – as a small boy in short trousers, not an O-level student – we were probably taught that a story had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Though it might not have been as explicit, it was no doubt inferred that it had to have a purpose beyond the writing: a message, meaning or moral, in other words.

I find that this idea has not died. Among the plethora of blog post articles on how to be a writer (better/successful/published/professional), I came across one suggesting how to write better flash-fiction. The author included a link to a free class and being a born-again student, I thought it might be interesting if not fun to do.

But having enrolled, I’m not sure it’s a wise thing to do. I’m not a serious writer and have no inclination to be one, to wish to support myself financially, even in part, by writing. I wouldn’t want this anymore than say wanting to be a one-star Michelin restaurant chef off the back of a love for preparing an enjoyable meal for two, each evening. I believe the work would destroy the love.

However, the class, and its forum, are dominated by wannabe serious writers. And, it transpires, these peers are also your teachers and judges – it is free after all – and they hold on to the rule of a story needing a beginning, a middle, and an end – and a meaning, and absolute clarity, and linear progression, and almost anything which ensures formulaic adherence to the traditional idea of a story. And that is not where I’m at after all these years of reading good books!

It seems ironic to think back to when I was studying English Literature – a separate subject and O-level examination at school – I would question why we’d be picking over an isolated passage from a novel instead of reading the whole from the beginning. And now this is what I like doing!; although in the course of reading a book in the usual way.

Maybe those lessons have finally taken root and flourished in my mind; or maybe I’ve been subconsciously conditioned to discover the beauty in the paragraphs, and pay no mind to the plot. I don’t know. But here I am, and enjoying it, and this boat is not to be rocked!

Four Lessons for your consideration

This article in Artsy magazine on Willem de Kooning had me thinking whether there was an equivalent in painting and drawing to “writer’s block”. Why I should make this leap – more a sidestep in reality – when the article doesn’t mention anything like it, I don’t know but thinking does that sometimes. There probably are some similarities between the creative arts.

The article deals with de Kooning’s lessons in becoming an artist. I thought I might consider these in the wider perspective of creative work. There’s a link at the end to the actual article if you want to read that.

Lesson #1: Don’t be afraid to be influenced by fellow artists’ work.

This is funny because I’m often unashamedly, and sometimes unconsciously, mimicking the work of others I admire. Sometimes I might even play around with stuff I don’t particularly admire.

I remember reading a story about Jimi Hendrix when he was seen coming out of a back street dive having gone in to see some second rate band. “Why on earth would a player of Hendrix’s standing bother watching a bad act?” He explained that even a poor player can sometimes give you a great idea about performing or songwriting. He took the influence and improved on it.

Lesson #2: Seek out glimpses of inspiration in the world around you.

This is probably the writer’s block bit. I don’t know about you but there’s always moments when I notice something interesting or inspirational. It might be a small thing, or it might be significant. It’s important to just log it in your mind – or jot a note down (I admire note takers a lot even though I rarely do this for myself).

Lesson #3: Pay attention to your desires, not the critics.

What motivates us? Yes, I think we all like a little approval, we like a little praise. Constructive criticism would be good too, providing we can handle it, though it’s not very nice; it depends where we’re at, past the tipping point of having gained self-confidence enough to brush off the nonsense stuff.

I think you have to be faithful to your desires.

Lesson #4: Embrace imperfection—even failure.

Whatever you’re into to, there ought to come an important tipping point when you realise that a mistake, far from being annoying or an embarrassing set back, is actually a real progression in learning your art. Failures make better teachers than successes. Of course, you have to look it squarely in the eyes and know why, and how to avoid it a second time, but this isn’t something you’re more likely to do with a success.

As a perfectionist myself, this has arrived later than it could have. I see perfectionism as a disorder and it still cuts deep at times but it shouldn’t hold you back.


Article: Willem de Kooning: How to be an artist (Artsy magazine)

image: The Privileged (untitled XX), 1985 by Willem de Kooning