Books that Convinced Me to Stop Writing (So Much)
May 17, 2016 § 2 Comments
By Anthony Michael Morena
The Voyager Record: A Transmission —my lyric essay on the music, images, sounds, and greetings that were sent into space mounted on the interstellar Voyager spacecrafts in 1977 — is just over 13,000 book-length words. And the pieces inside of it are each very short fragments, some no longer than a sentence or two long.
I used extreme brevity in The Voyager Record but not because it seemed cute to tell the story of the longest journey from Earth with short pieces. It was a style that even took me by surprise, and I was the one using it. Before I began The Voyager Record, I was strictly a writer of fiction: I had sworn off poetry and had never considered writing essays of any kind. But a succession of books written in nontraditional, short length formats changed all of that. These are the books that converted me.
Postcards to Donald Evans: Takashi Hiraide
Shortness was part of The Voyager Record from the very beginning. The initial writing I did for it—which appears in the book mostly intact as the second and third fragments in this selection—was inspired by the short prose fragments of Takashi Hiraide’s Postcards to Donald Evans. Donald Evans was an artist whose life was cut tragically short when he died in a fire while living in the Netherlands. His artistic work is based on creating stamps for pastiche European nations. Hiraide becomes obsessed—at first sarcastically, but then movingly—with Evans’ stamp paintings and life. The fragments in the book were short because Hiraide wrote them on postcards; actual postcards he addressed to Evans. Hiraide’s brevity was determined by the physical space of the mail. A reader can feel the rectangular, justified text blocks reaching across from one edge of the postcard to another. To emulate Hiraide, I kept my text within the size of the picture of the Pioneer plaque I was writing about, as if it were the verso side of a postcard.
The Bricolage Novels: David Markson
After composing a dozen or so prose poem pieces, I realized that extreme brevity—the fragments that consist of only one or two sentences—could allow me to unite the loose material I had into a larger whole. These short fragments were directly influenced by David Markson’s bricolage novels Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel. In what he called a “personal genre,” Markson strung together one-line factoids about notable artists, writers, and historical figures, with occasional asides by his nearly featureless author-surrogates Reader, Author, Writer, and Novelist. Markson was someone whom I had met and talked with while I worked at The Strand bookstore in New York. He complained that he was no longer able to enjoy fiction, but found himself absorbed only in reading nonfiction. Before I wrote The Voyager Record I was coming to a version of the same opinion.
Reality Hunger: David Shields
A big influence on the about-face I made between fiction and nonfiction was David Shields. I had read his “manifesto” Reality Hunger about a year before I started to write The Voyager Record. In the short, numbered, *plagiarized* passages in that book, his argument won me over. Remixing nonfiction could create a whole new literary genre. One thing that Shields demonstrated, but didn’t explicitly state, is that remix culture depends on brevity. Like in music, sampled text should sound off and then fade away in snippets. I knew that using this kind of sample technique—with attribution, because I didn’t want to get sued—I could juxtapose facts from the story about Voyager’s creation with the more speculative, and downright fictional parts of the book. My “stealing” was always small scale: a quote from here, a list of scientific specs from there. What I got most from Shields was permission.
Varieties of Disturbance: Lydia Davis
By the time I was finished writing, I had prose poem-size pieces, and line-length pieces, and tidbits I found in different sources, and (at four pages) one relatively long story—a combination that I realized was heavily influenced by Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance. She could place a single-sentence fragment next to a page-length prose block then follow it up with a short story. The text layout of The Voyager Record definitely looks like Varieties of Disturbance, but Davis’s collection also had an impact on the content of The Voyager Record. Though technically fiction (and at 24 pages, definitely not very short), her story “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders” is told in a nonfictional style: the “story” is a data-driven analysis of a grade school class’ artistic responses to an injured classmate’s stay in the hospital. The analysis in the story breaks down specific elements of the children’s letters—their penmanship, the salutations, sentence structure, word occurrence—a cold, calculated process I applied to the contents of the Voyager record.
Most importantly, the writers who I credit for influencing The Voyager Record were all exhilarating to read. By bucking conventional length and style restrictions, they taught me a way to write that felt more natural and honest than any traditional form ever had.
Anthony Michael Morena is a writer from New York who lives in Tel Aviv. In 2015 he received his MA in creative writing from Bar-Ilan University. His poetry and prose have appeared in The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Flapperhouse, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He has also been a guest editor for The Ilanot Review and a regular reader for Gigantic Sequins, a good-looking, biannual, black & white literary arts journal. The Voyager Record: A Transmission (Rose Metal Press 2016) is his first book. Find him on Twitter @anphimimor and at anthonymichaelmorena.com.