Bite-sized Prose, Buffet Conversations
Because distributing books has been a challenge this year, some of my students have been reading novels on their computer. From the beginning, I’ve been worried about screen time and screen fatigue, so I decided to create a unit on very short fiction. The stories mostly come from Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms. The stories play around with the potential of the writer’s imagination, including fun forms like magical realism, conceit, and epistolary narrative.
An oxymoron, prose poems contain all the complexity of poetry without the line break. The line break makes rhyme and rhythm possible, and all poetic forms like the sonnet, villanelle, and sestina. But the line break, especially in free verse and plays, also confuses students because of the visual pause that often doesn’t end the sentence or even contain punctuation that would indicate a grammatical pause. Prose poems, without the line break, at least appear more like narratives than poetry, if only because they visually appear more cohesive. Prose poems and very short stories often rely heavily on the backstory, the story that the reader must often imagine.
I love how very short stories reveal that longer passages and even whole novels, can also contain highly poetic language and techniques. Something magical happens when writers cross genres.
One of my favorites is Meena Alexander’s “Crossing the Indian Ocean”, a story about how it feels to migrate at the age of five:
A child can fall into the sea, never to reappear … Sometimes the syllables of poetry
well up, waves on the surface of the sea, and they burst as flying fish might, struck by
light … The page on which I write is a live restless thing, soul-sister to the unselving
These sentences rise and fall like the waves that simultaneously become the speaker, the act of moving to another country, and the act of creating art out of a memory from childhood. Alexander’s explosive use of metaphor, rhyme, alliteration, consonance, personification, commas, and simile helps makes sense of the past and helps the reader understand the essence of a transformative experience.
The backstory in this case, as in any very short story, relies heavily upon the imagination of the reader, and allows the reader to draw on their own experiences to fill in the gaps caused by the limited amount of words. Sometimes five-hundred-page novels contain as much truth and power as five-hundred-word stories. No story, no matter how many words are in the story, tells the full story. Even the person who tries to tell their own story falls short of capturing the full reality of every single moment. Even a third person narrator doesn’t have full access to the thoughts and feelings of every single person in the story. This is why we talk with our students and ask questions. We hope to get to the bottom of things, to tell our own stories, and those words we speak out loud will endlessly expand the words and the story of the writer.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers