Saturday, November 29, 2008

On yearning

Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, writes in his book, From Where you Dream, that the most important thing in a short story is that you must have a character that yearns. In entertainment fiction, this may manifest itself in simple terms, such as, I want to solve the crime, I want to sleep with that man or woman, I want wealth, power or to drive a stake through a vampires heart. In literary fiction the yearning is just at a different level of desire: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe. A good story is propelled by a characters complex desire and need, in the least selfish form, for something intangible and out-of-body.

A Short Short Theory
by Robert Olen Butler

To be brief, it is a short short story and not a prose poem because it has at its center a character who yearns.
Fiction is a temporal art form. Poetry can choose to ignore the passage of time, for there is a clear sense of a poem being an object, composed densely of words, existing in space. This is true even when the length of the line is not an objectifying part of the form, as in a prose poem. And a poem need not overtly concern itself with a human subject. But when you have a human being centrally present in a literary work and you let the line length run on and you turn the page, you are, as they say in a long storytelling tradition, “upon a time.” And as any Buddhist will tell you, a human being (or a “character”) cannot exist for even a few seconds of time on planet Earth without desiring something. Yearning for something, a word I prefer because it suggests the deepest level of desire, where literature strives to go. Fiction is the art form of human yearning, no matter how long or short that work of fiction is.

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