On Fragments

In the beginning was the fragment, and the fragment cast a shadow, and the shadow became the word.
—Carlos V. Reyes

Olivia Dresher, writer, publisher of Impassio Press, and director of the Life Writing Connection has also established an online magazine of fragmentary writing that publishes “…excerpts from journals, diaries and notebooks; vignettes; aphorisms; micro essays and notes; excerpts from letters; and various nontraditional short forms.” Her recent book, In Pieces: An Anthology of Fragmentary Writing, seeks to establish fragmentary writing as an independent genre.

At her suggestion, I’ve have been reading Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet to find out what the experience of reading fragments is like. It has taken forever to get past the first quarter of this volume. This by no means diminishes it greatness for it is a fascinating book to read. But it is without narrative or direction or momentum and so I read it for a while and then put it down in order to get into the next gripping novel that is going to take command of my life

Olivia and I have had periodic exchanges about the nature of fragmentary writing of which the following is representative:

To Olivia: Here is my concern about texting, tweets, and facebooking, and even short fragments. These forms of expression may discourage writers from formulating reasoned, well supported, and comprehensive statements about an issue or a question. Especially among the young, although not restricted to them, learning how to do this, and it does require a lot of learning, will take a back seat to shorter forms of expression. You really have to practice, practice, practice, writing a coherent statement in order to do it well.

Without abundant opportunities for such practice, it will become a thing of the past. It will also fail to be recognized as extremely important and valuable in its own right. I admit my view is simply a concern without any empirical evidence. But we do hear a lot of anecdotal evidence these days about poor writing among the young and their inability to sustain an interest in reading for very long. No doubt there are exceptions and no doubt I overgeneralize. But still I worry. I guess I worry about many things. Worry comes to me quite naturally.

From Olivia: I hope you don't think that I see them [fragments] as a substitute for other kinds of writing. I just want to help them develop a place that can be respected, especially since they don't really have a place. I want to explore their dimensions and possibilities.

I'm very interested in form, and I like all forms of literature. I happen to, personally, be drawn to short forms (I always have been). A lot of people don't know how to appreciate or write short forms. And perhaps people, in general, have leanings to write short or long forms rather than both, and perhaps it isn't just a matter of training, practice, and education. I'm glad that there are writers of novels AND writers of haiku. I also value traditional writing AND experimental writing. Both.

In the Introduction to In Pieces Olivia writes, “One quality of fragmentary writing is the lack of a traditional beginning or end. Instead, the two are merged into a brief and concentrated middle. A fragment is a “slice of life,” a short expression or description of a thought, memory, insight, mood, perception, image, or experience.”

She notes that journals, diaries, and notebooks are forms of fragmentary writing. Clearly then there are millions of us of all ages who really are fragment writers. Much of what we write is personal, usually written in the first person, and most often they are works of non-fiction.

Olivia concludes her introduction by saying, “It is my feeling that the fragmentary form, more than any other form, gives writers the opportunity to travel as far away from the boundaries of traditional genres as they feel they must in order to express their truths.”

Here are some fragments on fragments that Olivia has composed:

Fragments: because it's the very nature of perception to be fragmentary.

Fragments: the less there is, the more that's left to the imagination.

Our contemporary lives are fragmented...the fragmented form is a reflection of the way we think and live...

A fragment doesn't explain...it just is...it can be a few words or several pages long... It can exist by itself or in a series... It can be whatever the writer wants it to be... There are no rules...