August 16, 2019:
From childhood I carried a spiral notebook, writing "sketches" which I thought of as practice for the conventional novels I'd one day author.
A "sketch" was a simple, discrete description. A bookcase with a broken shelf; a kitten playing with shoelaces; people at a bus stop. They were snapshots without implication: This is what it is.
Around the turn of the millennium I began to think of these no longer as mere practice but as works in themselves. It seemed to me that the form had aesthetic merit which was underappreciated. The best of them were no longer discrete. They implied a world outside the page, as poems will do. Formally they were products of compression, frequently extreme. They had implication: This looks like a little dust mote but it's actually an entire universe.
- A successful vignette evokes while a sketch doesn't.
- Vignettes differ from "flash fiction" because, as consensus has evolved, "flash fictions" attempt to be ordinary "stories" with beginnings, middles, and ends. There have to be events: things have to happen. Vignettes, like haikus, can be static. When they work well they can paint a still frame but imply a movie. In my opinion the now-standard form of "flash fiction" is reactionary because instead of moving forms forward it attempts to recreate what's always been done, only smaller. I find that neither interesting nor useful.
- Vignettes differ from "prose poems" because the latter tend to be florid. I suppose you could write florid vignettes, but if you did they'd just be prose poems and anyway, please don't.
I work with vignettes as one attempt among others to escape linearity. I'm bored and exasperated by "stories". It seems to me that one-dimensional narratives are artifacts of print, where forms are determined by modes of distribution. The tradition of "character development" exists because the pages turn in one direction, or are expected to. Whole genre exist to exploit the constraint: picaresque for example, or detective fiction. Film and verbal storytelling are equally linear because constrained by the second law of thermodynamics: time flows in one direction. Digital media break the constraint by enabling multiple dimensions. Textual worlds such as TriadCity or Fallen London enable new kinds of computer-mediated narrative in which "events" can happen in arbitrary sequences — or not at all. In print, Tom Jones will always go to London, will always meet Mrs. Waters along the way, and always at the same inn at the same moment in the work's linear time. In TriadCity you may meet Barbecue Dave at any moment, or never at all, while I may meet him at a different time under different circumstances than yours. While computer-mediated narratives add dimensions, vignettes take the opposite approach, reducing the dimensions to zero. Where a point may exist in four-dimensional space but is under no obligation to say so. Computer-mediated narrative requires computers, vignettes can work in print. They're both trying to escape the prison-house of linearity.
Now instead of a spiral notebook I carry an iPad. Or just my phone. I still write all day, but seldom sketches. Vignettes are more fun, and, to me, more aesthetically rewarding. In my opinion they're a form worth exploring. I hope more writers will choose to do so.