3. Mortal Words

Whenever he was suffering from writer’s block Franklin would visit Immortal Words, the town’s biggest second-hand bookstore. He’d often find inspiration there, browsing among the books, and flipping through their pages. However, one day he found a shitload more inspiration than he bargained for.

“Excuse me, sir.”

He turned around to see a boy, no more than 10 years old, gaping up at him.

“Yes, mate?”

“I’m looking for the classics section, Mista.”

“The classics section?” Franklin said, scratching his head. “I didn’t know there was one.”

There were many thousands of books at Immortal Words – in fact, many hundreds of thousands. There were over 20 rooms packed with volumes old and new, both upstairs and downstairs. The owner James Morton loved books, all books, unconditionally. He loved good books and bad books, fiction and non-fiction, cult and literary, bestseller and bargain bin. In over 20 years James had never turned a book away.

“Have you tried upstairs?” Franklin suggested.

“Um, no – the fella by the desk said it was down here.”

“Oh,” Franklin said, looking about helplessly. He could see books on every conceivable subject – memoirs, and essays, and poems, and biographies, and…

“Oh, look,” he noted, on seeing the word ‘Classics’ scrawled in barely readable ink on one of the shelves. “There it is,” he pointed.

“Gee, thanks Mista!”

“One little shelf?” Franklin frowned. “That’s not much, is it? What’s the definition of a classic?” he wondered aloud.

“A book that’s stood the test of time,” the boy replied matter-of-factly, as if he’d heard that phrase many times, enunciated in exactly that way.

“Really?” Franklin grimaced. “That’s the definition – a book that’s stood the test of time?”

“Uh huh,” the boy nodded distractedly as he looked at the shelf. “Oh cool,” he squealed. “This is what I wanted!” He extracted a tatty copy of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. “Thanks Mista,” he yelled, as he sped off to pay at the front desk.

Quizzically, Franklin bent down to look at the books. They were the same books that had been ‘classics’ when he was a boy – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Pride and Prejudice; The Scarlet Letter; The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Most of them were between 100 and 200 years old, but some were a fraction older. William Shakespeare‘s works were almost four hundred years old, but the numbers plunged dramatically from there. There was only one surviving text from the middle ages – Chaucer’s The Nun’s Tale. And The Symposium by Plato was the only work older than that. Perplexingly, most of human history was simply not represented.

And that’s when he had his Eureka moment. You see – that’s when he turned around to behold the thousands of other books in store, stacked to the ceiling, spilling over from shelf to shelf, and room to room.

“Jesus Christ,” he gasped, as the realisation struck home. Before him there were two storeys and 20 rooms packed with books that were never going to stand the test of time. All of them, good or bad, loved or hated, faced oblivion before the next 100 years was up.

“You alright there, Franklin? You look a bit white.”

He turned around to see the shop’s owner James Morton staring at him in concern.

“James, I’ve had an epiphany.”

“Another one?”

“Yes, my God, James, listen,” Franklin heaved, “the notion that writing something great promises immortality, that somehow your creation will remain long after you’ve passed on, well,” Franklin bristled, “it’s a gross miscalculation! In fact,” he spat, “if it’s immortality you want you’d be better off scratching your name into a cave wall.”

“You think so?”

“Look at all these books!” Franklin exclaimed, gesticulating to the shelves crowding in all around them. “Now look at your miserable little ‘Classics’ section! Immortal words indeed!”

“Mmmm,” James conceded. “I see your point.”

“And why did these books survive? Why are these considered ‘Classics’? It’s completely random. I mean, come on – Treasure Island?” Franklin moaned. “Really?”

“I liked Treasure Island,” James objected.

“James, it’s just a piddly little yarn about pirates! How many great books from Victorian England have disappeared? Books we’ve never even heard of. Instead we have Treasure fucking Island.”

“Well, that’s no reason to be upset.”

“Oh really?” Franklin fumed. “Maybe if you’re not a writer, James! But if you’re a writer it’s bloody devastating. Deep down every one of us has been led to believe that our work will endure if we can only write a book good enough. That’s the great self-deception, perpetuated down the centuries from who the fuck knows where. The truth is, even if I could write my  masterpiece it wouldn’t have a hope in hell. Not even the so-called ‘Classics’ last long. A hundred years from now Treasure Island will have disappeared too. There are no immortal words.”

Silence fell between them, as they contemplated that point. As lovers of books they had each, in their own way, invested their lives in that lie. It was a lie that couldn’t be attributed to anyone in particular; and a lie that no one had ever actually examined.

“All the pain, all the effort, all the trauma – all for nothing,” Franklin groaned. “Years of bleeding all over the page for no money, or reward, or recognition. A life wasted on words that won’t even outlive my dog!”

“Are you going to stop writing then?” James Morton frowned.

“Stop writing?” Franklin turned to him. “Are you kidding? This is too good to let go. What an insight – what pathos, what tragedy! This is the story I’ve always wanted to write. This could be my Frankenstein, my Great Expectations, my Hamlet!”

“Where are you off to now then?” James asked, as Franklin scrambled to the exit.

“Home,” Franklin shouted back. “Books don’t write themselves, you know.”

Tiny truths (an introduction)

Welcome.

Over the next few years I plan to publish a series of 50 super short stories. The genre is known as ‘flash fiction’. My stories will be 1,000 words or less, and will come completely self-contained, with everything a good well-told tale needs – including plots, themes, conflicts and compelling three-dimensional characters.

So why a thousand words?

Well, first off – why write anything of any length? Why write haikus? Why write sonnets? Why the hell write novels or trilogies? To be frank, why is a completely arbitrary question. I have no answers to why, other than the obvious – that brevity is indeed the soul of wit, and that shorter short stories are better than longer short stories. You can read them in the time it takes to skim a newspaper, and draft them in the time it takes to have a long polemical argument on Facebook.

As for why a thousand words specifically, well – a thousand is just a nice round number, that’s all. I like the discipline of a thousand words. But, of course, I might have chosen 981, or 1091, or 897. A straight thousand will do me just fine. The point is – I’m already writing longer literary works. I need a format that will help me get all the other ideas I have out of my system. Quite simply, flash fiction works best.

Let me say from the outset that I won’t be writing garden variety or <insert the cliche of your choice here> stories. These little stories will not be ordinary. I’m not doing this just to entertain you. Despite what you may think, I really wasn’t put on this Earth to relieve you of your daily drudgery. If my stories entertain you – I’m okay with that. But that’s not their principal purpose. My real intent  is to present you with some tiny truths about life – one tiny truth for every story. So there’ll be one profound reflection or cutting insight wrapped up in the lives of characters who inhabit no more a thousand steaming turds, or about four double-spaced pages.

I started writing fiction at the grand old age of 13. The author who first inspired me to take up my pen was Robert E. Howard – the creator of Conan. Those familiar with Howard’s work will know what a gifted storyteller he was, for even if you don’t take to his stories it’s hard to deny their power and immediacy. If ever there was a natural spinner of yarns it was young Robert Erwin Howard, who weaved together histories and myths in startling new ways. By the time he died at age 29, he had a body of work that writers twice his age would kill for – from classic short stories that established him as one of the most important pulp fiction writers in the world,  to poems with a rare  lyrical potency. It’s been close to a century since he died, and he still casts a very long shadow on the unique subculture he created almost single-handedly – the niche genre now known as ‘Swords and Sorcery’.

The other towering influence on me as a younger writer was Harlan Ellison – an absolute master of the short story. I discovered him only a year or two later, at age 14 or 15, through classic volumes such as Paingod & other delusions, and Approaching Oblivion. I wasn’t alone in thinking he was an incredible talent. This was a writer who had won more Nebula and Hugo Awards than any other. His story Repent Harlequin Said the Ticktockman (a personal favourite of mine and one of finest examples anywhere of early flash fiction) still remains one of the most reprinted stories in the English language.

Like Howard, Ellison never took to longer literary forms. While both writers wrote the occasional full-blown work, unusually they both achieved their acclaim through the short story format. In doing so, they were both purveyors of a very compact kind of truth. Somehow, these two writers were able to find some kernel of reality in every story, in spite of the fact that both wrote highly ‘speculative’ forms of  fiction – in Ellison’s case ‘Sci-Fi’, and in Howard’s case outright fantasy. Howard would access those core truths intuitively, directly from the unconscious, through the brute force of his talent. Ellison did so more consciously, and perhaps a little more artfully, through sharply constructed stories that achieved a remarkable degree of verisimilitude – stories that somehow made you question your reality, and forced you to reflect deeply about things you didn’t ever think about.

In the years since I first start reading these two great writers I’ve grown quite disdainful of fiction in general. I guess the cynicism has set in. There is just so much bad fiction around. Often I question the very point of fiction. Today non-fiction holds a much greater appeal to me, principally because  it’s so much more unself-conscious about telling the truth. At least, that’s what I sometimes tell myself. But if I have to be really honest – there’s a great deal of truth to be found in fiction, and a lot of untruth to be found in non-fiction. And the way I see it – unless we take the time to engage that fundamental contradiction, we’ll never truly understand either.

As my homage to Howard and Ellison, who’ve remained enduring influences throughout my life, these little 1,000-word stories will hopefully illustrate my conviction – that really good fiction tends to reveal the truth in some way, and doesn’t simply help readers to escape reality. That fiction can also give birth to incredible alternate realities, and truths we never even considered.

There will be a lot of hardcore truths in these stories. Some may even be what you might call ‘profound’. Some may be so challenging that you might not want to accept them as any form of truth. Of course, if you don’t,  you can at least console yourself with the fact that I didn’t waste a lot of your time, and that I was able to say what I had to say in less than a thousand words.

So please join me over the coming weeks, months, or years, or however it long it takes for me to complete 50 tiny stories – each with furnished with their own tiny truth. It should be a blast.

 

© Copyright Ron Lawrence Anderson