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The O:JA&L Masters Series
Flash Fiction: Craft Essay

Featured Writer: Michael Martone


Click on the title The Tiny Book of Forts to explore more of Martone’s work in the new PDF chapbook available now as a free offering from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press.

The Great Rebellion by J.T. Headley


I write long, long titles for my short, short stories.  I suppose this is, for me, existential, a function of the genre, a genre that defines itself, first, with this intensified brevity—the short short.  But what kind of brevity?  What is the quality of briefness?  The shortness of the short, the short shortness has, most often, to do with word count and, also (though less often) with the word count’s relationship with page length and, by extension, the number of pages.  I have noticed that the genre’s most definite defining instruction found in the guidelines for contest and anthology solicitations spell out the length of “short.” It seems length is perhaps, our only agreed upon convention.  Adrift I in the miasmic nebulousness of this form it is comforting to count beans, to have beans to count on.  The prompt to write this something we call the short, short story is addressed in terms of numbers of words—250, 500. 1,000—or numbers of pages—one page or complete on these two facing pages—often the only defining characteristic of the short, short story is this kind of length, or lack thereof, and at the very least length as a defining characteristic, goes a long way, a kind of essential DNA, as close as we get to formula, or rules.

I believe this piece here was to measure out at 2,000 words (or so I remember).[1] Yes, two thousand words.  But let me burn some of those words on this aside.  Just how quaint, how antique to use that particular scale of numbers—250, 500, 1,000—numbered for such metrics for this genre of short fiction, already strange because the genre is already mostly characterized by word count, page count, but so curious also that the word count, page count is still based on the ancient typewritten page of 250 words. This makes me think that the form, perhaps, is a creature, most of all, not of the handwritten page but the typewritten page or of the computer written page—the computer hobbled to act like the antiquated 19th century machine. I am at this moment using double-spaced courier on my iMac to mimic the typewriter and the 250-word page.  All of this to say that this is a lot of words to say this: if an essential part of the form is the formal limitations of words, and that every word counts in the form, then do the number of words in the title count in the count?

I like to think when I think about word count, that the words floating at the top of this column don’t count.  That the words in the title inhabit a kind of duty-free zone of existence, the realm of untaxed perfume and spirits, a transient space unencumbered where one passes through, where one is nowhere and everywhere.  The title is like the hidden text of the computer page, that 50% gray ghost print.  The title like the fields of headers and footers, is para-text, graying in the gray area, so when whatever editorial assistant sits down to count the words to see if this or that piece is the right kind of short to be a short short story, he or she will start with the “I” with which this essay started and regard the title starting with “Titled” as a kind of gimme, a practice swing, a tune up, a fumbling focus, throat clearing, tuning fork tabulation it is and it isn’t.  Now, the computer is not so forgiving.  This word here, this “here” is word 600 according to the meter running at the bottom of the frame of this open window and embedded in that number 600 are the 11 words of the title.  I have used over 600 words, one way or another, to get to this point, right here, all to say only that titles, whether they count or not in the accountancy of word count rules, count.  And because we most often take titles for granted, they’re granted to us, we don’t grant to them much of the much more they could be.

Where is it written that we as writers need to title what we write?  It is a convention so deeply ingrained as to be invisible to us. The practice, no doubt, reaches back to some primordial primary grade school lesson of composition writing by wrote. “Now class begin your paper with a ‘title’ and remember to center your title on the first line…” Yes there are the experiments of avoiding the imperative of the title, titling the title “Untitled” or titling with cardinal or ordinal numbers that now can incorporate the digital dot to the various versions—Title 2.0—to the numeric sequence.  Yes, the generic “Poem” and the more rare “Story” or “A Story” have been used but they are still titles even as they resist title-ness, and yes, even the Dickensonian blankness that is left blank gets filled by the default of the first line that follows the purposeful nothingness. The text abhors this vacuum.  Tide and title rushes in.

For the prose writer, the title is as close as he or she will get to writing a poem.  The poem loves to play close in the valence of individual words and the multiple meanings, sometime contradictory, meanings the word embodies as well as the lubricated surfaces of the several such words rubbing up against one another.  The example I love is from Auden and his partial line:[2]

Poetry makes nothing happen.

In which the pressure is all over the word “nothing” and the simultaneity of its making “makes nothing happen” and “nothing happen” a force forcing the reader to inflect with personal emphasis the English spin on this particular cue.  The poem can have us, has had us, read (at least) both ways of reading reading at the same time and as well as sequential backward and forward, the exact inexactness of the sense. A poem and a title I am arguing here fights against the existential nature of the medium of prose that insists the words line-up, be read in order and with a syntax that yanks the kinks out of convolution.  A poem and here a title ones to be inhaled all at once, a fast-acting pill dissolving.  Like a painting, poetry is a wall of sense and sense and senselessness that is at once centered and in the periphery.  The title, this kind of poem, then does not so much participate in the stylistic ideal of the prose it precedes.  It is not interested in transparency, a clear window transmission of the content.  Instead the title hedges.  It is a thicket, a bramble, a roll of concertina wire.  It contains one thing and at least one thing more and it contains the one thing and all of the everythings the piece title titles is not.  If the story is a maze one works one’s way through on the path of pea gravel, the title is the maze’s maze, all topiary all the time.

The picture postcard’s stamp is the picture postcard’s picture postcard.  Stamps[3]are highly elaborated works of art we routinely carry around, often overlooked as our attention is focused upon the thing “underneath” the scribbled greeting or the view out the vacation window.  The title too is frank franking, a stamp to validate and is cancelled. It shares with the card, its affixing in fact animates the card, the last piece, a kind of key that propels it through the world.  But at the same time the stamp and the title remains aloof separate from the thing is attached to.  It has it’s own aesthetic.  The title is both symbiotic and autonomic, its vision is both binocular and depthless gem seen through a jeweler’s loop.

A long title at the beginning of a very short story alerts in a readers mind not so much the meaning, theme, or content of the prose but the slant notion of scale itself.  A short short story may be about a lot of things but one thing it is always about is scale.  It is about the strategy of concentration, compaction, compression as if the prose was being squeezed by some piston to the point of spontaneous combustion.  The title then works to machine this shrinkage.  You work through the title like a sieve, a filter.  Negotiating a title recalibrates you to this new world you are about to end no longer metered in meters but now in microns or angstroms.  The title acclimates you through its distortions to the distortions to come, a zoom lens attached to the microscope.

How small is small finally?  An element say or the atoms inside the elements or the nucleus and electrons shells inside the atom, the particles inside the protons and electrons, the particles of particles, the small that is finally undetectable.  How long is a short story?  How short is it to be?  How long is the title this other entity that orbits the thing it titles.  Is it a satellite, a moon, a belt of dust?  Or can the story be a collapsed star, dense and deep, that the story in its flight is hinged upon?  The title perhaps is the still center that snaps the story around, indeed, the story must be read in full to finally unlock the meaning of the title.  The title not a simple introduction at all but the question posed for the story to answer.  Perhaps the short short story we always already write is the title.  And the short short story we do write, the falls in letters from the title down the page like a curtain of matrix of stars, is nothing more that an over large enabling apparatus for the few words of the title?  As a writer of the short short story my desire is by definition to be short as possible, short squared.  So what can be shorter than a title?  The short short story’s short short story.  That next step toward the shortness that in its even less-ness is next to godliness.

It is so antique these numbers

How small is small.  Zoom the movie.

Smaller particles inside the smallest particle…  The universe inside the nucleus of the atom inside the electron shells.

[1] But I should go back and look at the original correspondence.
[2] Which would make a great title by the way
[3] As is currency both paper and coin


About the writer: Michael Martone is an American author. A prolific writer, he has published 30 books and chapbooks. From 1996 to 2020, he was a professor at the University of Alabama where he taught in the Program in Creative Writing. Martone is now retired.

Image: The Great Rebellion by J.T. Headley. Print of attack on Fort Sumter by cannon and mortar crews in foreground with South Carolina flag. Image of Ft. Sumter in the background. “THE GREAT REBELLION” (printed above image). “BY J. T. HEADLEY. HURLBURT WILLIAMS and CO. Hartford, Conn.” (printed below image). All titling text has been here cropped away. 1862. Public domain.

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