In a recent conversation with a fellow prose writer, I articulated my frustration with writing my artist statement, one of the many documents I crafted on the job market this past fall and one I am still revising. (Is an artist statement ever done?) I told her while I know my work is interested in the relationship between artistic practice and social justice, I don’t yet know what that relationship is. She put down her glass and blinked at me as though I had asked her if paper was thin, then proceeded to tell me that while art itself might not be capable of instituting change in the world, it creates the space for change to be imaginable.
Two students of mine recently asked me how to go about writing the impossible. They each had a narrative that was at once their own and also not: one was trying to write through his experience of being present during a national tragedy and another was trying to write about her illness, which was advancing at an exponential rate. I told them each that there were two possibilities: either they were resistant to taking on the responsibilities inherent in the act of narrating and they needed to face and embrace them—even if that meant getting it wrong—or their stories were unlanguagable, in which case they would have to find a new framework for giving the narrative voice.
In his manifesto Reality Hunger, David Shields uses assemblage to curate a dialogue about the limits of The Real. The voices he appropriates and sequences implicitly argue that our increasingly urgent twenty-first century desire for reality is compromised by the fact that our storytelling mechanisms are growing further from it. As Shields notes (without acknowledging in the text proper that he is parroting E. L. Doctorow), “There’s no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction; there’s only narrative.”
The novella is slender but gaping. It embraces pause and pattern and gesture. It declares, “I can say more with less” and then it does. It is not an unwieldy short story but cohesive, taut, succinct. It is the novel’s architectural foundation, the stripped and fleshless core that argues the frame of a story might be enough. The novella is a kind of constellation. It is not less than the novel. In that it crafts and calcifies a story world, harnessing concision and brevity to widen the scale and possibilities of our own, the novella might be more.
My mother has told me a beautiful story since I was quite young. The story goes like this: Once when I was very small I followed my father into the bathroom where he was replacing a broken mirror. Somehow—the events get fuzzy here—I ended up in the bathroom alone, and she found me there sitting in the middle of the pile of broken pieces, squeezing them in my small fists. At the moment she found me, there was a split second when—as she saw the blood and broken bits surrounding me—she did not move. She could see that I was watching myself amplified over and over in the strange glass. I imagine this is the first time I had ever looked in a mirror, but that is only my imagination—I don’t remember.