Almost eighteen years ago now since I attended my first writing group. One night we got on the subject of vignettes, those usually one-off scenes so well-written and well-rounded–as far as they go–that pop into our minds and fluidly out onto our paper. The instructor asked how many we had and from my school desk (we met weekly at the high school across from my apartment) I indicated a stack of them about so high by placing my hand two feet above the floor. We all laughed. It was funny because it was something we all shared. Vignettes are the easiest things to write. They are the self-contained worlds of sudden inspiration. Perfect spheres of everything and of nothing. They lead nowhere. There is no backstory, no plot line. Just the perfect snapshot of a world that exists and ends in itself. I have notebooks full of them. The one thing they all have in common is action. That’s what makes them so easy to write. We see something that triggers that burst of inspiration.
But vignettes are not a story. They are not exposition, not streams of consciousness. They are motion, scene-ettes usually triggered from visual inspiration. Vision cannot see exposition or a stream of consciousness, but it can see motion.
To that end, I keep a gesture journal. A list of gestures or actions performed by characters almost always inspired from real life. The entries are close to vignette length because describing the gesture takes space.
“She placed her hand, palm down, two feet above the floor indicating in a gesture her answer to the number of vignettes she had written in her lifetime.”
That one sentence can be expounded upon to include the classroom setting, the other students, the instructor’s trouble making an elderly doctor understand that this was a fiction class–he wanted to write a biography–and my reluctance to read aloud the manuscript I was then writing (the dreaded sex scene!). I might also include one student’s quip that Sissy Spacek would play the female role if my novel was ever scripted. But apart from it being an almost-scene, it wouldn’t move a story forward. There’s a lot of laughing, gnashing of teeth, and sweating–all actions–but no story in itself. I couldn’t take every vignette in my notebooks and paste them together to make a story, not even if they were about the same people. Neither can I take my list of recorded gestures and make a story from them, but they, like vignettes, make ideal writing exercises and create fodder for future endeavors. From the writing of a gesture to the writing of a vignette to the writing of a scene to the writing of a story. A simple little gesture list can create worlds.