An Exercise in Compression

RK Taylor

Like many creative writing educators, I teach (and think in) the components of craft. These components serve as heuristics for writers to develop their own work, and they provide teachers with a framework for designing lesson plans. Still, approaching the pedagogy of creative writing with a specific set of terms can, from the point of view of the student, yield an educational experience that lacks nuance and intellectual rigor.

Before college, students are trained to memorize and identify certain literary terms. Some students assume this set of terminology will continue to exist in their college classroom, predicting the words the professor will use in a craft-based conversation. Though these terms are the building blocks for a sophisticated understanding of language, students may become less engaged with seemingly redundant material. The issue presents, not because the components of craft are inherently problematic, but because educators prioritize certain elements and fail to reach beyond the accepted norms.

The literary community has incidentally created three tiers of craft terminology. The most common terms are those that all students know: character, setting, plot, conflict, etc. In the second tier, there are those that students recall after the requisite querying: figurative language, detail, voice, etc. The third tier comprises elements like chronology, irony, syntax—elements that are seldom, if ever, mentioned by students without blatant prompting. Though the latter terms are important to one’s understanding of craft, teachers rarely dedicate an entire lesson to developing a more thorough understanding of their role.

Of the often neglected components of craft, I find compression is among the most important.

Fiction and creative nonfiction have grown shorter by popular demand. A combination of shortened attention spans and time constraints has developed a body of short, short literature with a plethora of different brandings. Micro, hint, flash, sudden. All are linked by two threads. First, each is constrained by an arbitrary word limit. Second, and much more important, they all demonstrate the beauty of compression.

By compression I am referring to the art of creating a full experience in a limited piece. There are several buzzwords and phrases that help to give rise to a well-compressed piece: minimalism, specificity, attention to detail, subtext. Although each of these can be impressively demonstrated, their union is not a complete rendering of compression. Fundamentally, compression requires the writer to confront the elegance in constrained creativity.

This isn’t to say that longer stories lack compression. When writing long-form, whether a novel or a memoir, compression is still vital. Considering compression helps the writer to focus on important scenes by having them attend to the aspects of narrative that most matter in a given situation. Perhaps when the writer considers whether it is more important to build character or advance plot, they find—after a consideration of compression—that it is possible to do both simultaneously.

Although compression can be a topic-worthy conversation for any story, it is especially important in shorter works, which often attempt to stir up the reader’s emotions in a few meager paragraphs.

Compression has long been overlooked in the pedagogy of creative writing. With this new wave of short, short pieces, it is of the utmost importance that we begin to discuss effective compression techniques in craft classrooms.

The purpose of this assignment is threefold. First, it should encourage students to consider the care that goes into crafting a short piece and the focus that compression should take. Second, it will provide students with a practical tool to ground them in compression—a trick when they get stuck. Finally, it provides students with an opportunity to workshop early drafts with their peers, to help them understand both sides (reading and writing) of compressed flash prose.

Students will first construct a timeline of a twenty-four-hour period, creating one unique entry per hour. Nonfiction students can choose a day in their lives; fiction students can choose a day in the life of a fictional character they’ve previously created, an imagined day of a family member, or a mayfly (which requires that they consider the animal’s whole life span). Students will then choose five nonconsecutive points from their timeline and build a story based on these events. This will challenge students to think about the most essential or interesting moments in an already-constrained time period, and expound upon what has already struck their interests.

Students will read these aloud in small groups. They will listen to descriptive, empirical comments from their peers. Restricting comments to the descriptive and empirical gives writers space to hear what stands out without normative judgments from their peers.

The students will then create a new timeline of a longer time period. Nonfiction students may opt to write a timeline of their lives; fiction students may choose the life of a character, or the imagined life of a friend or family member. Students will then workshop in the same groups, this time providing comments that are evaluative and critical.

By first hearing descriptive comments, and then hearing judgments, writers are able to understand their work in two dimensions. Since they will also function as both noncritical and critical readers, the students will continue to strengthen their understanding of the successful and unsuccessful facets of compression, as well as learning of their personal strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. Since students fulfill the function of writer and reader, their understanding of compression will begin to demystify.

 

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Ask students to create a timeline of a twenty-four-hour period with one unique marking for each hour.
  2. Have students choose five nonconsecutive points from their timeline.
  3. Prompt students to draft a piece of flash that incorporates each of their chosen points.
  4. Break students into groups of four.
  5. Ask that someone from each group reads their piece to the other members of the group. While they are reading, group members should write down descriptive, empirical comments about the story.
  6. Have students read these comments aloud to their groups.
  7. When the comments have been exhausted, the next member of the group will read their story.
  8. Repeat steps 5 through 7 until all group members have read and provided feedback.
  9. Have students make another timeline—this time, encompassing a longer period of time.
  10. Ask students to select five, nonconsecutive entries.
  11. Prompt students to draft a piece of flash based on their chosen points.
  12. Have students repeat steps 5 through 8 in their same groups. This time, however, their comments should be evaluative and critical.
  13. Ask that students type and revise one of their two pieces. A final draft should be handed in at the start of the next class.

 

Biography

RK Taylor, an MFA candidate at Chatham University, relocated to Pittsburgh from upstate New York. He serves as a roving editor for The Fourth River and teaches creative writing at the Allegheny County Jail through Chatham’s Words Without Walls program. His poetry and fiction have appeared in The Metaworker, Oragami Poems Project, and Flash Fiction Magazine. His debut short story, featured in Scribble, has been nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and a Pushcart Prize. He has an unparalleled passion for whiteboards.

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