Recently had the soul-busting honor to be published in a matchbook, the brilliantly conceived new literary journal by editor and publisher Kyle Petersen. They will be distributed to bars and bookstores throughout California. It was a new experience to conjure a fictional story in 300 characters or less but I hope this form of short (short!) story helps make me a meaner and leaner writer. Below is the story as it appears in the matchbook (no need for Reader's Digest version here), and below that is Mr. Petersen's pelagically deep lit-crit in which he lights a fire under dead, cold asses of Barthe and Derrida and a little fire, for good measure, under mine, too.
TO LIGHT A CIGARETTE
They watch the BIC swirl down the icy creek, a stab of yellow bobbing with luminous truth. "Matches?" Sam asks, last farewell cigarette dangling, ready. Holt digs his pockets. "No." Plan was to wrestle nic demons in the wilderness like Jesus. "How many miles back that liquor store?"
--Bruce Willey, Bishop, CA
The first thing that struck me about Bruce's story was that it was complete. It contained all the elements of conventional narrative. We have, in the very first sentence, the essentials of exposition: the characters, setting, and foreshadowing of conflict: the icy creek tells you that the characters are outside in the wilderness; and the BIC lighter swirling down the icy creek warns you that the characters have just lost something essential to being in the wilderness, namely fire, warmth.
Next, we have rising action, or the moment at which the protagonist's internal conflict is introduced and complicated by secondary, external conflicts. The internal conflict here is the paradox of addiction, smoking a last farewell cigarette in order to stop smoking, and Bruce deftly captures this state of limbo with the juxtaposed words, "dangling, ready." Soon after, in traditional narrative sequence, we have the climax--"No."--which marks the turning point for the protagonist. Sam's dilemma has gone from bad to worse: he (or she) is stuck in the suspended animation of quitting, of not yet having had his last cigarette. The falling action, or the moment where the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist unravels, is likewise suspended in the very first word of the next sentence, "Plan." The plan "was to wrestle nic demons in the wilderness like Jesus," and this plan is still possible if Sam foregoes his pre- plan to smoke a last farewell cigarette. But the denouement, or conclusion, renders tragedy. When Sam asks, "How many miles back that liquor store?" he falls to his antagonist, pulled by his addiction in the opposite direction of where he planned to quit smoking, indeed, desiring to return to the supply store of his very dilemma. This last line--the way it echoes hauntingly back into the story and then reverberates outwardly into Sam's near future--makes this story a story in its ability to continue off the page as well as to describe the universal condition of all aspiring quitters.
Of course, for those of you here already familiar with the conventions of narrative, this is only so much Creative Writing 101. But Bruce has written more than a complete story, which is why his was chosen for the inaugural issue. At the risk of paying myself a backdoor compliment, I can think of no better story to print for the first issue of Matchbook Story than a story which calls the whole enterprise into question. Whether he knows it or not, or whether he'll cop to it, Bruce has written a metafiction--a story about writing stories--which is signaled here by the self-referential title, To Light a Cigarette, headlining, mind you, a story intended for the inside a matchbook. What are matches for? To light a cigarette, answered most literally. But here, matches are also literally for telling a story. So, answering the question again, What are matches for? and answering, To tell a story, Willey's title makes cigarette smoking synonymous with short story writing. The protagonist, who can now be thought of as a writer (maybe not Willey himself, but his bio did mention something about being a mountaineer), enters the wilderness to kick his cigarette habit. What is the wilderness? The wilderness is this new, unexplored form--a story in 300 characters--and like the backpacker-protagonist required by the wilderness to reduce his everyday needs into the confines of a pack, the writer, too, is required by this new form to write a short story in less space. The protagonist's addiction to cigarettes is the writer's addiction to average short story length. The loss of the BIC lighter is the loss of technology--call it the laptop, perhaps; or built-in spell check--with which to write, or light, this story. The absence of matches is the absolute inability to light the cigarette, or to enjoy the civilized leisure of short story writing. As the cigarette is the delivery mechanism of pleasure-producing nicotine, the story is the delivery mechanism of pleasure-producing truth, of that yes! moment driven by our desire to find out, unveil, affirm, or to know. The plan, then, to wrestle nic demons in the wilderness like Jesus, is the writer's plan to wrestle a moment of truth out of this new, very short form, to see if he can go without the thing that produced pleasure before and still come away happy. But then the protagonist-writer asks, "How far back that liquor store?," doubting his ability to write a successful story in the 300-character wilderness, and, in turn, asking to retreat to the modern convenience stores of conventional short story writing. The story ends there--we don't actually see Sam and Holt head back to town or further up the trail--and this is as it should be. If, in the end, Sam marched confidently into the wilderness without his crutch, the writer would be claiming his success at this new form, cigarette/short story be damned! If, on the other hand, Sam tucked tail for the shelter of civilization, the writer would be indicating his failure to enter the wilderness. But we see neither and, so, we get to decide. I, for one, think Sam hiked on and kicked the habit. Indeed, I believe Willey has blazed a trail.