The best teacher of writing is actually writing. People ask me all the time, “How do you write a book?” The answer is always, “You write a book.” There’s stuff you can only figure out about storytelling by . . . well, telling the story.
The second best teacher of writing is reading good writing. And reading writing that is very different in style and content and even in genre than your own is a great way to bring new things to your own work, to practice what makes their work special and see what it does for yours. Maybe it will only make you more sure of your voice. Or maybe it will help you find your voice.
I tend to write long in a first draft, meandering around scenes that I later cut when I find what I really needed to know. So I decided to study the very opposite of my 3000+ word scenes. I looked at a series of tiny scenes strung together—vignettes—to see what their form could teach me.
I first read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros many years ago. Though it isn’t a novel, I remember it that way: a clear narrative arc following a journey of transformation for the protagonist, all couched in the richly realized setting of her neighborhood on Mango Street. Only a few of the pieces work off of each other to create forward motion in the story; the rest exist as perfect moments in amber, frozen with gem-like clarity to capture single instances. As she lays her handful of amber in the reader’s lap, it amounts to a complete story even without the first-then-next logic of a traditional novel. Vignettes perfectly relay the essence of an experience when that matters more to the writer than the metered beats of conventional narrative.
Cisneros came to fiction as a poet, and her essay in the anniversary edition, “A House of My Own,” makes a compelling argument for using vignettes. She explains of her younger author self, “She experiments, creating a text that is as succinct and flexible as poetry, snapping sentences into fragments so that the reader pauses, making each sentence serve her and not the other way round…So that the sentences are pliant as branches and can be read in more ways than one.”
Flexibility is right. Cisneros eschews quotation marks, in her words, “to streamline the typography and make the page as simple and readable as possible.” The appearance of the vignettes—their movement on the page—morphs and twists depending on the way she wishes them to serve her.
Some vignettes are observations, like my favorite, “Those Who Don’t.” I used this piece as a teacher in my largely Latinx 8th grade classrooms to help my students understand that grown writers live in this world who felt as my students did about staying in their brown communities. It was powerful to see a dawning sense of relief when they recognized their lived experiences in the instant Esperanza, the narrator, says, “Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous . . . But we aren’t afraid . . . All brown all around, we are safe…But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and . . . our car window get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes.”
In a novel, this scene would need to run two to three pages as Esperanza observes someone come into her neighborhood and exhibit fear, then go herself to another neighborhood and experience fear, each scene related as first-then-next. Instead, Cisneros communicates the ongoing nature of her characters’ existences by capturing it in a present tense vignette less than a half page in length. It has the density of poetry but required no unpacking by my students who were still developing their abstract thinking and English skills. They got it. They could feel it. The vignette is a moment that was and is and will be, not a story that happened once.
Other of the Mango Street vignettes follow a full narrative arc relating a single rite of passage or flash of realization that, once experienced, does not need to be repeated. They are static, fixed incidents. In “A Rice Sandwich,” Cisneros constructs a spare but classic story, first-then-next, as Esperanza wages a campaign to eat her lunch at the school cafeteria instead of going back home. She supposes that school lunches are substantively and experientially superior. When she wears her mother down, she discovers that the dream far outstrips reality as the story ends, “. . . lots of boys and girls watched while I cried and ate my sandwich, the bread already greasy and the rice cold.” This vignette is four times longer than “Those Who Know,” even though the latter describes an ongoing condition of Esperanza’s existence and “A Rice Sandwich” deals only with a single point in time.
This is the beauty of discrete pieces—their function determines their pacing rather than sanding down or fluffing up each scene to fit the pace of an overarching narrative. It is exactly the way that an old photo album is a collection of separate memories but when the last sticky photo sheet is turned, the viewer understands she has seen a whole story anyway.
In their third form, the vignettes appear as poems barely hiding as prose. It’s almost as if Cisneros wrote them as poems and then eliminated the white space. In “Four Skinny Trees,” Esperanza describes the trees saying, “Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger. This is how they keep.” The four paragraphs read as if they should be a stanzas, not huddled together into paragraph form. Cisneros reserves this format, almost-poetry, for Esperanza’s more abstract observations, when she is delving her feelings, not narrating an incident. Other vignettes look more like poetry on the page, but aren’t. While a few jump rope chants are written and spaced as poems on the page, most of the poem-looking pieces are like the vignette “And Some More”:
You know what you are, Esperanza? You are like the Cream of Wheat Cereal. You’re like the lumps.
Yeah, and you’re foot fleas, that’s you.
Rosemary, Dalia, Lily . . .
Jean, Geranium and Joe . . .
Mimi, Michael, Moe . . .
Your mama’s frijoles.
Your ugly mama’s toes.
Using the visual layout of poetry lends the dialogue a rhythm that might feel too stylized or contrived in a conventional novel, but here again, as each piece is considered on its own merit, each of these choices works within the limits of its own vignette.
Dicitonary.com gives my favorite definition of a vignette, calling it “a small graceful literary sketch.”
Grace. It epitomizes the ease with which Cisneros choreographs the vignettes. It is a revelation about really listening to what my 3000 words scenes want to say. Can I say it in less? What do I lose? Words. What do I gain? Greater control.
That is how it goes and goes.
Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.