ENG 162 Fall 2013

ENG 162 at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor ME, taught by John A. (Don't ever, ever ask!) Goldfine johngoldfine@gmail.com

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Week 8. Vignettes

Let's you try something extremely straightforward and extremely useful, particularly when incorporated in longer pieces. That is the short literary sketch or vignette (pronounced 'vin-yet,' emphasis on the second syllable.)

Here's the online definition--the very first item I got when I googled 'literary vignette': "A vignette is a short, well written sketch or descriptive scene. It does not have a plot which would make it a story, but it does reveal something about the elements in it. It may reveal character, or mood or tone. It may have a theme or idea of its own that it wants to convey. It is the description of the scene or character that is important."

The key word here is 'sketch.' There are artists in this class, and I hope as I stray into your territory I don't say anything too stupid (feel free to slag me with a comment if I do). An artist does a sketch, a quick sketch on the fly without a lot of concern, to tap his deepest instincts, to find out what his eye is registering, to reconnect with his basic apprehension of the world's light & shadow, shape, form, mass, line, and presence.

Later, there's time to consider, to add and subtract, to use artifice, to color and so on--but the sketch in pencil, charcoal, ink is the first and freshest look, the one always there as a guide to the original impulse and inspiration.And what you're sketching is something to do with "character, or mood, or tone."

It's a quick in-and-out, a minor production that has to immediately ravish with its quick insight but not maintain or sustain itself.I'd like you to try writing vignettes for your theme material and also to try using the prompts as springboards to vignettes.

As for sample vignettes, try this for a quick portrait: http://porcelain40deuce.blogspot.com/2004/11/week-eleven-theme-response-distancing.html

Or this from my blog: I think it describes a scene in a way that creates a bit of character, mood, and tone--it is not a narrative, however because there really is no story at all:

Sept. 19. The wind was whipping down Pitcher Pond toward Ducktrap, not enough for whitecaps though, and, despite nervous noises from someone I first met 41 years ago this month, I launched the rowing canoe. Scoot jumped in without hesitation; he's always ready to head out. Chloe dithered a little, couldn't quite pull the trigger and found herself left on shore, racing along the beach with her eye on us.

We headed back in and this time, when she had her chance, she took it, and then we all three pulled for the island.Scoot stood on the bow thwart balancing and keeping an eye on the passing scene--he's only ever tumbled in once. When I see him up there, benign and watchful, I always think of this book one of the first I ever remember reading (Reading level according to the librarians: baby to preschool.)

Scooter is my Scuppers the Sailor Dog, the dog I've wanted to have ever since I was six or seven.One of the reviews on Amazon asks: "Is there a more charming picture in children's literature than Scuppers the Sailor Dog standing on the prow of his little boat, dressed in wet weather gear, with a spyglass to his eye?"My answer is no, there is not, but fine as the illustration is, it pales next to the actual sight of my Scooter with his forepaws on the gunwale of the blue Old Town Discovery.

After I'd pulled a few strokes, got my rhythm, and could feel how much the wind was going to let me dig in and use my back and knowing Scoot was behind me alert to problems and Chloe was in the bilge alert to Scoot's alertness, for a few seconds there my brain flooded my mind with endorphins, the body's natural high, and I was purely happy. Just for a few seconds.Then I thought, "God, this is perfect," and, as soon as I had a thought, even a happy thought, the endorphins dissipated.

I was still glad to be out on the water with my dogs, but that first thrill of a drug hitting the brain was gone.We circled the island, slid back with the wind, still having to pull quite a bit to keep the boat from yawing, and then we were back at camp, the dogs excited as heck to see Mumma who had been out of sight for a half-hour now. Seeing Mumma is always a thrill for me too, but I'm a little past the crazy-waggling-my-rear-end stage.

Late-break: here's this week's (4/22/06) prompt reaction from Amy Cross in Eng 101 (Amy is an ENG 162 vet), a perfect vignette:

Tonight I’m sitting in the dark trying to type by the light of the computer screen. I don’t want the neighbors to see that I’m still awake. I’m afraid that one or the other of them might tap on my door hoping for some respite from their eternal fighting. It starts the minute that she pulls in the driveway after work and doesn’t stop until one of them tears away in the little red car. I hate that I have to sit and listen to the horrible names that they call each other and the brutal threats that they make against one another.

Every day is another battle in their war. The same shots are fired with the same precision as the battle before. The voices get raised to the same crescendo in the same manner. Even their physical positions are unchanged. She stands in their doorway with the yellow light behind her and he paces betweens his broken down truck and the stairs. Occasionally, one of them throws something in the other’s direction and whatever it is will lie there through the night like a soldier’s boot on a deserted battlefield. In the morning their three year old daughter plays with it while her mother loads the car.

The bluebird of happiness flies over the battlefield and lands on a boot left behind.

Here's a risky vignette--risky in topic or approach:

A Sign at the Whistle Stop, or Credit Card Penny Candy

There is an odd convenience store downtown next door to Ben’s Paint and Wallpaper Store. I think it is called the Whistle Stop or maybe the Caboose, I don’t exactly remember but I’m sure it takes its name from its proximity to the downtown Gloucester commuter rail stop. Sometimes when I am at Ben’s I’ll run next door to pick up a pack of cigarettes or even a can of Zig-Zag tobacco, and maybe a newspaper. The thing that makes the Whistle Stop so unusual is what it carries…and what it doesn’t. There are no cupcakes, Ring Dings, no Glamour or Seventeen or People. No designer water, no discount water and no lottery tickets. I don’t think they even sell sodas or chips of any kind. I always thought that soda was to a convenience store what liquor was to a restaurant, “where we make the money”. Instead, they sell tobacco products, newspapers, penny candy, which now is more like three for a quarter, phone cards, a few leathery old sundries, and dart parts. Yes, dart parts. You can get the tips, various knurled brass fittings, and the feathery tail end things, everything you would need to assemble your own set of darts. The dart parts are mostly housed in a glass case below the phone cards.

I stopped in recently to pick up a can of Zig-Zag, and found the store unusually busy. There was a swarm of youngsters at the counter and one or two people kind of standing in line behind the kids. It was hard to tell who was in line because there was so much buzzing around and a woman had positioned a stroller so you couldn’t tell if it was just indiscriminately parked or was holding a place in line. She was wandering nearby, but not as close to the stroller as you would expect. I positioned myself as though I were in line, sort of. As I watched the swarm of kids more closely, I was able to slowly piece together who they seemed to be and what they were up to. They appeared to be brothers and sisters, the oldest two were girls, probably about 15 and 17. The other three were much younger, and were all so blond and pretty that I couldn’t tell which were girls and which were boys, but I’m sure there was some of each. I may have been so enamored with the beautiful teens, I simply lost my other basic powers of perception for a few moments. The swarm looked as though they had left the family compound at Eastern Point or Annisquam on their own for an excursion downtown for candy or ice cream.

To admit that the two long-legged teens were mesmerizing makes me a bit ashamed at my age. They were like lovely pies just about to come out of the oven, as the lacy crust bakes to a perfect color brown and the apples begin to turn soft and sweet. I watched as the woman behind the counter counted out the pieces of candy and dropped them into a couple of brown paper bags, ringing in numbers periodically on the cash register. It seemed to take a lifetime, and I tried to watch the counting and the girls with a casual, but I’m sure completely transparent, air of indifference. I thought of Lawrence Ferlinghetti for a fleeting second, and to pass the painful amount of time it took to count and bag each piece of candy I found myself trying to recall “…The candy store beyond the El is where I first fell in love with unreality…her breasts were breathless in the little room…outside the leaves were falling and they cried too soon, too soon.” That was as much as I could remember. Candy and breathless breasts. Oh yes, and leaves. My God, please help me.

When all of the candy had been totaled up the store clerk announced, “That’s twenty dollars and sixty cents.” In my day, that would have bought a year’s worth of penny candy for me and all my buddies, but who wants to hear that? The oldest of the blond temptresses, or so they now had become as I tried not to study them too intently, pulled a credit card out from her wallet. The clerk told her they did not take credit cards, so the girls started digging through their pockets for cash. As the digging became less and less fruitful and the murmuring between the two girls increased, it became apparent they were ill-prepared to pay for twenty bucks worth of, dare I say it again, penny candy. I couldn’t see much of the candy as it was bagged, and the only ones I could quickly remember from my childhood were Mary Janes, root beer barrels, jawbreakers, tootsie rolls, and the little Turkish taffy bars. Even the candy has changed now, dyed with colors more otherworldly than the pinkest of bubble gums and wrappered in pictures of spaceships and bionic beings. At that moment the woman with the strategically parked stroller stepped up to the counter and offered to pitch in some money to help the move the transaction along. I am not sure if she was a total stranger, but the offer was accepted with so little fanfare that I guess she was somehow acquainted with the girls and the rest of the brood. Alternatively, she just really wanted them to move on so she could finish her business at the Whistle Stop. I don’t’ know.

The temptresses gathered up the smaller kids and the candy and left the store. I saw them get into what must have been Grammy or Grampy’s Oldsmobile outside, but no grandparents were waiting in the car. The eldest got into the drivers side, started it up and off lumbered the old Yankee tank. When I finally made my way to the counter I splurged and bought my can of Zig-Zag and one package of Lucky Strike. Both seemed so out of place, this place, any place. The Luckies were part of the uniform of returning world war veterans and James Deans, the loose tobacco the emblem of young, roll-your-own reefer renegades, all living long before credit card penny candy made its debut.

Copyright (c) 2006 by sag

Remember--sketch, not a story....

2/9/12--Late note: a lot of times if you cut off the first and last grafs off your piece, leaving it a little mysterious in origin and a little hanging or ambiguous or indeterminate in its close, you will find yourself with, voila!, a vignette!


Blogger Jordan Larrabee said...

I thought the vignettes were cool. Usually I try to over-do a piece and I think to much about the fancy words and the detail. So it was fun and pretty easy to kind of shorten up the piece. I actually liked the way I wrote more!

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