Friday, November 6, 2009

On the Vignette (Part One for Nicole Walker)

For months in graduate school, I suffered from urticaria—a kind of hives. It was the weirdest infliction. The hives appear on one part of your body, and then disappear only to appear on another. You never know how long it’s going to take for them to reappear or where they’ll show up next. This is when I started to write vignettes for what would turn out to be a memoir. I would start writing a vignette when a bunch of hives appeared, and then end it as soon as they appeared in a new place. This is the truth: It always felt like my body gave me the perfect amount of time to finish my vignette.


My best friend’s father stopped reading novels when he began to die. “I can’t afford to spend too much time reading. I'm dying and have to say bye,” he said. He tried switching to short stories. That didn’t last for long. “Short stories are like bad hospital guests,” he said, “They’ll sit by your side, and you think they’re going to stay for a long time, but not that much time passes until you can feel them getting ready to go.” One day he told my best friend to tell him a story. He talked for a few minutes and then his father stopped him. He never let my best friend share more than a short episode, a vignette. It was too tiring to hear more. During that time, it was when they felt the closest.


You can ethically judge an essay made out of vignettes without having to read all of it. In fact, your assessment made me best served by only reading parts. A good vignette should be self-contained; it shouldn’t need anything other than itself. At the same, if you do put it next to another, it should feel like the perfect decision. Like the essay would be incomplete, doomed to failure, if you didn’t put it exactly where you did.


For middle-aged writers like myself, writing a vignette is pure nostalgia. The best ones are like photographs. You have no choice but to show. No time to tell. All those useless, silly, dated mantras, your high school creative teachers taught you- like show, don’t tell- feel, once again, like undeniable Truths.