Abstract Expressionism—in Writing

There has been an explosion of flash fiction in recent years. Flash fiction has been around a long time, parables and fables go back to ancient times. Some writers berate it by claiming that modern readers have attention deficit disorder, hence the popularity of Twitter, but I don’t believe this is entirely true.

If I want to read a book, I’ll read a book. I don’t have Kindle or any kind of e-reader, can’t afford to keep up, and seem to survive just fine without them. So, when I’m at my computer, which is often, there’s just no way I can sit here and read 1000 word stories, posts, or articles unless it’s part of research for work, writing, or my own curiosity. It would have to draw me in immediately, and there are a few who do, but they usually pertain to a subject I’m interested in.

I believe in the principles of flash fiction and wish all writers would apply these to their work. There are so many longwinded posts, articles, and bestselling fiction, full of superfluous text or boring or irrelevant details that I want to bleed a red pen over them.

But there’s something else in flash fiction that is just as cumbersome, and that is fiction so surreal it defies explanation. Reading a short story ten times trying to figure it out takes just as long as reading a long story once. I keep getting told it’s all about the reader’s interpretation, but stories aren’t dreams nor should they resemble a Jackson Pollock painting. Even a very short story should give you some basic facts and have a beginning, middle and end, even if it’s just 100 words. That’s what a story is. This is done by choosing each word carefully and not assuming the reader knows what’s inside your head. A page from an imaginary novel is not a story. By leaving out important pieces of information, writers think they are being profound but they are simply leaving many readers asking “huh?”

Bloggers can write whatever they want, it’s no one’s business but their own. But I would like to see writers of surreal fiction ask their readers what they think it means. I would like to see the commenters who write “awesome post” explain why they think it’s awesome. I love puzzles—cryptograms, crossword puzzles, Scrabble, jumbles, and hangman. I don’t get the same enjoyment from a puzzling piece of fiction. You can be just as profound without leaving the reader bewildered.

35 responses to “Abstract Expressionism—in Writing

  1. Indigo Spider

    Well said and something for me to keep in mind, as a writer, for future short stories.

    As a writer, my ego likes “great story” but it would be nice to get more feedback than that in order to improve the writing. Sometimes it is hard to step back and evaluate my writing, to see that it doesn’t make sense, because I have the back story in my head so of course it makes sense to me!

    As a reader, hell yeah, when I see something that is blocks and blocks of writing and I can spin my scroll wheel to infinity before reaching the bottom, I’m clicking on past to another blog. I don’t mind longer posts IF they are really, really good. However, break it into smaller chunks at least. For the most part, around 500 words seems to be good for me the reader as well as for me the writer.

    Finally, yes, please, give me some clue, don’t make me work so hard to figure out what the story is about. I never liked abstract art and I like sudoku but not when I’m reading. Enigmas wrapped in tin foil, or whatever the expression is, does not appeal to me as a reader of short stories. Leave that to the professional writers (they have editors).

    As usual, thanks for saying what needs to be said Debra!

    • Thanks Indigo. You have written quite mystical stories that I enjoyed and had no problem understanding. I think you have a good grasp of what needs to be told. Of course we can leave some mystery, that’s not the point. We don’t need long narratives describing a scene, or detailed descriptions of what people look like (yuck), it’s boring and we can imagine that from a few well-chosen sentences. I’m talking about leaving so much to the reader’s “interpretation” that it seems like I’m trying to translate something from Swahili. Yes, give us a clue.

      And if someone doesn’t get something we write, wouldn’t you rather they say so? Ask you, like, WTF? It can only help us grow. Thanks for writing.

  2. And I thought it was just me…not grasping what the writer was trying to convey. Thanks.

    • No Patti, it’s not just you and it’s not just me. We’re not stupid, so if we don’t “get” something, I’m not sure it’s our fault. It’s up to the writer to make us understand. Even the heaviest, deepest, most esoteric story can be told in way that we go “wow” instead of “?”

  3. AYMEN, Sister, keep it simple. It’s something the best popular fiction writers have always done.

    • Thanks Ann, I agree. I love clean and lean writing without a lot of extra crap, but that in no way is the same thing as not revealing important information that will help us understand the story.

  4. These are some interesting thoughts. I am, perhaps, the king of long prose on the internet and I’ll be the first to admit that it limits my readership. In reality I don’t care because that’s what I do. I weave words to create images and to express ideas about the natural world. I fully understand that there are those who won’t care to read more than 100 words on the internet but that’s OK.

    Still, you are absolutely correct there are a lot of different types of people and opinions that read blogs. To each their own.

    • Bill, I’m hardly referring to you when I speak of long posts. Yes yours are long, but because they are about a subject you are intimately familiar with, impart specialized knowledge, educate us about a wilderness area, and all with wit and humor, you don’t count among the type of longwinded posts I mean. I think you have a large readership, but of course it’s going to be people who are eager to learn about your world, like me. Of course you don’t care about pleasing everybody, your blog has a theme.

  5. I’m not familiar with flash fiction. I’ve read longer pieces of experimental fiction, but rather than abstract collages, they were attempts at modifying the stream-of-consciousness style. Brevity just ain’t the spirit of my soul. Never twitted, tho i’ve often tittered. Scylla (the cat) attempts to tweet, but her bird calls need a lot of work.

    • Hi Joel, I’ve never tweeted either, not interested. Flash fiction can be any type of short fiction, it doesn’t have to be experimental, it just needs to be a full story in few words. There are thousands of bloggers doing it so naturally there are going to be good and bad attempts. But I guess it all depends on what you like to read.

      Tell Scylla to stop trying to tweet, she may get good at it and attract a mate, which she’ll then eat.

      PS—just received first season of The Wire today!

  6. I think this is one reason I never became much of a fiction reader, although I love a good story as much as anyone. It is very hard for a writer to keep the reader turning pages with pacing and plot. I can’t do it, which is why I write the odd stuff I do!
    It is the I am a student of copywriting and a more “journalistic” style – it is all about grabbing and keeping the reader’s attention

    • I think it’s really hard to find good fiction that holds my interest, though, like you, I love a good tale and when I find an author I like, I want to read it all.

      My background is in copywriting too, and reference book and dictionary writing, so maybe we’re too analytical. I have tried to read fantasy fiction but don’t like it. I love your posts, always something different with your unique viewpoint.

  7. Hi,
    I do not aspire to be a writer so have not studied the “ins” and “outs” of what is right or wrong or writing styles. As a “reader” I just know what I enjoy readiong and what I do not.
    Please don’t laugh but I had not heard of the term “Abstract Expressionism”
    or “Flash Fiction”. So I have really enjoyed your post… 🙂
    In this simple post you have just nailed what I’ve been thinking..as a “reader”…for sometime!

    This is what I enjoy about blogging it can really take you out of your comfort zone!

    • Piglet, there is no abstract expressionism in writing, it’s an art term for abstract paintings, the kind where you’re afraid to say you don’t like it because everybody else is fawning over it. But flash fiction, which is very short fiction from 50 to 500 words, is very popular, and there is more and more of it on the net. I agree, we all know what we like and don’t like and shouldn’t be afraid to say so. Thanks for your comments!

  8. I’ve been deeply suspicious of anything surreal ever since three friends and I submitted a story in a creative writing class that got rave reviews. Each of us wrote random sentences, assigned them numbers, and then organized them based on the roll of a dice (this was pre computer days). It wasn’t very creative but some people found it profound.

    • Hi Thomas,
      Well that might be a fun exercise but I doubt if it was profound—if it were that easy we’d all be rich! The thing about surreal fiction is that it leaves too much open to the author’s discretion, it’s like they don’t follow basic rules that make a good story. I like profound, profound is good. As long as we understand what is happening and get the point.

  9. I am guilty of said flash fiction confusion. I accept that the reason for this, in my case at least, is because I am not proficient (yet) in the craft of flash fiction. The only way to improve really, is to put it out there and see who gets what from it. Because I agree fully with you that the writer’s job is to ensure that their readers understand what they write. Being cryptic, abstract or surreal is not clever. It is deceitful.

    And this, Debra, is why I appreciate your comments over on my blog so much – because if I have not written something clearly enough, you will tell me so and ask probing questions. As a writer (aspiring) there is nothing more valuable in helping me improve.
    This is a great blog entry and has stirred up the right kind of discussion.

  10. Thanks for your comments Scribbla. Then if you don’t mind, I’ll continue to nag you, and hope that your other readers will ask questions too. You have a unique style that sometimes is instantly clear and brilliant, and other times totally confuses me. I’ll be sure to let you know! It doesn’t happen overnight, does it?

  11. I guess it’s more about the kind of visuals that the author wants to convey. If we talk about someone like tolstoy (old school author i know) he was very meticulous in describing the surroundings. Some might find it very dull but if you are trying to re-live a scene in the book then it helps. Creating that environment in which the characters run about can be very exciting to empathise with the character.

  12. I think that’s more true of the old masters, we want to learn about a time long past and appreciate details. Probably why I love Sherlock Holmes stories so much—but yet they move right along and don’t drag. I was thinking more about contemporary bestselling authors who take pages to drag out a description that could have been summed up in a paragraph. The scenes just aren’t that interesting, the settings mundane, the dialogue boring. The bestselling books I’ve tried to read in the past few years have been anesthetizing.

  13. This is an insightful post, for sure. I am a fan of surrealism of the worst sorts! I also love thinking creatively in surrealist terms.

    What you are referring to has been around far longer in other arts, and perhaps people who enjoy the abstract in music and visual arts are more likely to be tolerant of it in the literary arts. I know I am – I won’t criticize the motives or tactics of those who create abstract art, but that does not mean I like all of it. Any kind of art needs to inspire some sort of identification in me. I don’t need a story or a concrete topic to identify with art, and when art is lacking the concrete terms, it is usually the emotions and direction of thinking that causes me to appreciate the abstract. I understand that abstract art is never going to be popular in the “market,” but I think that is not the objective of the artist.

    I have to confess that I have no idea how to tell an engaging story. I like to paint with words what it’s like to live, whether it is poetry or fiction that I am creating, so I don’t know how to write appealing stories.

    I’m afraid my comment points to my long-winded character as a defect, so I have both defects, but this is a difficult topic.

    • Hi Carl, I’m not even sure surreal is the right term for what I’m talking about. Salvador Dali was considered a surrealist, and who doesn’t love him? Humor can (and almost should) be hilariously surreal. I’m talking about gaping holes in fiction which the reader is expected to “interpret.” This does not engage me. I have enough to do.

      Once back in CT at a gallery opening there was a Sol LeWitt painting of a white canvas with three little red squares centered vertically in the middle. Everybody was oohing and aahing—Genius! Magnificent! Oh the composition, the statement, the color! No way was I going to express my honest feelings and risk looking like a philistine.

      I tried to read Naked Lunch because the drug culture of the time fascinates me, but could not get through it.

      Yes, it’s all about identifying with the art or story. People can write, draw, and read whatever they want. I don’t have to participate. I think I’m more disappointed in “fan clubs” who worship without question. This does nothing to encourage growth and makes me suspect of their motives.

      • The Sol leWitt painting – are you sure it wasn’t a light switch?

        • Hi Robert, ha ha ha! But it was a virtuoso light switch, perhaps even the master panel. Since the artist created this light switch from the depths of his own imagination, it challenges the seeker of light to push the boundaries of their own reality, and emotionally engages their intellect with the genius of form and color. In fact, many of the Connecticut avant-garde tried to commission LeWitt to do the light switches in their MacMansions, but he refused, citing each one would have to be different, and he wasn’t sure how to do that.

  14. The little red squares and oohing and ahhing is hilarious! I have had that sensation of working not to be a philistine, but unfortunately, I have also been one of the ooh’ers.

    Something that is quite difficult for me is that if I am not telling a particularly fascinating story but simply pointing to a moment in life, whether real or imagined, I have no idea what I’m expecting of my readers. I know that something of the moment has engaged me, but I have no clue if I am expecting too much or too little of my readers. If I stick with brevity, I am usually pretty good at not expecting too little, which (expecting too little of the reader’s imagination) can be overly-patronizing, preachy and boring.

    Another interesting thing about this conversation that makes me reflective is that the pieces I love are those that people often don’t care for and the ones I think are mediocre are the ones people like. It’s all a mystery to me. I know what I like, but I can’t explain any of it.

  15. I agree, my tastes seem to run differently from the crowd. I know I’m picky about what I read. I don’t usually comment on poetry, but I love your short essays on life. Since they’re not trying to be fiction, just commentary on your perspective on your job or struggles, they reach out to me. Perhaps because I relate to them where others don’t. You are not trying to gain a fan club through your posts, which I admire and respect.

    I sometimes search for posts or blogs that have no comments, or just a few. These are often the gems. (Not mommy, cooking, religious, college life, where I went for lunch today with pictures, or hardcore political blogs of course, of which there are thousands.) It’s not easy to find blogs I relate to. I’m looking for a connection, which I feel with yours. So don’t worry about expecting anything from your readers.

  16. good post, Debra: I sometimes start novels but rarely get past the half way mark because it becomes a struggle — the prose is too long-winded, the plots byzantine and terse chapters too few — which is why I prefer short stories — which I’m now writing, magazine articles and flash fiction

  17. That’s great JLeo, I look forward to reading them. It’s important to recognize what we’re good or not good at.

  18. Most of the fiction I choose to read is straightforward. I don’t want to have to interpret too much. I read for pleasure, for an escape, and don’t want to work at it.

    The novels I’m writing and hope to get published follow this as well. Clean and lean, as you say, Debra. At least I hope they do. That’s my goal. I write more for story and characters than I do for describing every piece of furniture in the room.

    However, I also like to experiment. I think experimentation helps me improve my writing. And sometimes, I get a portion of an idea. I don’t know what it means, so I release it to see what happens. It may not make any sense, but if it’s meant to be something, other pieces will assemble and it will take form. Sometimes I build a whole scene out of one line of dialogue. I only get that one line. Then hours, days, months later, the rest of the scene comes to me.

    A lot of flash fiction is simply this kind of experimentation. It’s not trying to be a story. It’s just a sprout of one. Maybe someday it will be a story, but not yet. And if a writer posts something like that, sometimes it’s the feedback that fertilizes it.

    Blogging is a great medium for this kind of experimentation, and I try not to have too high expectations, for myself or for others. For published work, however, my expectations are sky-high, and I’m very unforgiving. 🙂

    I’m with you on long-winded blog posts. Like someone else said, 500 words is about right. Anything longer than that, I simply don’t read, unless it really grabs me and doesn’t let loose.

    • What feedback? There’s no feedback on anybody’s stories except how great they are. Nobody questions anything, even if there’s no way they could possibly understand it because it’s all in the writer’s head. Then the author says “thank you!” to each “comment.” There’s no discussion, just praise. How is that productive? Are the commenters just trying to embed their names into someone else’s blog so people will click on them? I don’t approve “great post” comments on my blog. It’s transparent and exploitative.

      I don’t agree that flash fiction shouldn’t be a finished piece. It’s supposed to be a story. Writers should work on it until it really is a story before it’s published, or call it something else. What better discipline is there for future endeavors? Blogging is publishing.

      There is absolutely no reason for anybody to listen to what I have to say. It’s simply my opinion and we all have the choice to not read anything we don’t want to read.

      • I do see your points. But I have to say (and I’m not just playing devil’s advocate), I do get a lot of constructive feedback on my posts, sometimes so constructive I’m left speechless.

        I think some people write short generic comments because they’ve read the piece and don’t want to be a lurker but have nothing important to say, other than they enjoyed it-which is important. I’m sure I’ve done that, although I try my hardest to come up with something of use to the writer. Encouragement is so important to new writers. So if the only thing the person has to offer is, “Good work! Loved it!”, I’ll take it. Maybe that makes me look like a whore, but it means so much to writers trying to get published, trying to remain positive while getting rejection after rejection.

        I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about the nature of flash fiction and blogging. I’ve built a lot of confidence in my writing due to the free form, casual nature of blogging. If the format was as strict as traditional publishing, there wouldn’t be room for us to learn and experiment and grow. Discipline is important, but I’m not interested in learning it here, not to such a degree to stifle inspiration. I’d rather this be my playground. Children learn through play. I think adults do, too.

        Thanks for such a thought provoking post to lead to all these comments. It’s given me a great excuse to put off working on my synopsis. Haha..

  19. I agree on the feedback thing when it is just “Good write!” Most of the people who comment on me say something about the piece that they liked, and this type of positive feedback helps – learning about what I did that works.

    I would love it if people would question parts of my pieces, tell me what doesn’t work, but I don’t get that much. I think criticism for improvement works for me as long as the person does not act as though theirs is the only way and they are the only expert.

    I’ve seen the opposite of what we see on WordPress with the Goodreads Poetry group. I have never seen such a vicious and bitter group of people. Even if their criticisms are valid, their delivery is so poisonous, I can’t get through it. They tell people “it sucks,” and worse, then they get into political criticism of the poet’s world view and start calling each other fascists. I’d rather have someone say “good post, ” then to get all of that stuff. I’d quit if that was the only thing I got, but I’m too sensitive.

    • That’s terrible, I’ve never seen anything so abusive outside of political blog or news article comment sections, where everybody is either a libtard or a fascist, and you can’t have a conversation with any of them. I would run from that group, abuse is not discussion. Just goes to show you that poets are not necessarily sensitive at all. Wow.

  20. One of your best blogs, Debra: strong, concise, opinionated but saying what needs to be said. Love the comparison with a Jackson Pollock painting.

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