Micro Lesson: Vignettes with Jeff Bender

Posted Fri, 2/03/2017 - 4:46pm by  |  Category: , ,

Jeff Bender teaches Short-Short Stories and Vignettes, an online course beginning February 11 that allows you to move at your own pace through the lessons. The four-week workshop will guide you through the stages of drafting original short pieces.


The word vignette comes from the French diminutive of the word vine. I’ve never been able to make a connection between the two. Maybe you can.

Like the memoir, it’s a form much better defined by its paragons: Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” Ernest Hemingway’s “Chapter V,” and Sandra Cisneros’s “Edna’s Ruthie.”

From these examples, and others we’ll study in the class, we can notice some patterns:

  • funny mixes of lightness and darkness (the vignette, as a form, generally has a terrific and dark sense of humor)
  • funny mixes of ugliness and beauty—particularly in the language itself
  • deliberate use of poetic devices, such as imagery, repetition, and metaphor
  • a strong sense of personal “fairness”—a concept we’ll discuss at length

And there are less concrete ideas at play:

  • “pushing” the thinking to its furthest logic (“Girl” accomplishes this particularly well, as does Lydia Davis)
  • “sticking the landing”—a concept I borrowed from the 2004 Summer Olympics

Many vignettes also reach back to childhood. I have a theory about why this is. I think it’s to imbue the writer with power of “fairness”: We’re more likely to report fairly (or “play fair”) if the events we’re reporting on happened long ago. I can say, for example, “I was an ugly kid”—though, as a kid, I’d never have the presence-of-mind to say this.

Some refer to this as the hot-iron / cool-iron theory. We can write fairly about something only if the iron has cooled. Otherwise, we’re unreliable—and, like, not in the interesting way. If the breakup happened yesterday, we’re going to say, “It was her fault.” If it happened years ago, we at least can say, “I can see what she was thinking.”

I see this class, Short-Short Stories and Vignettes, as a four-week practicum in sharpening our basic writing tools: sensory description, poetry, and risk taking. Our online classroom will be a locked door, behind which we’ll try and fail, try and succeed—sometimes in reverse order—and reveal to each other our contradictions and secrets.

And don’t worry. As Gordon Lish says in the article “Captain Fiction,” not all secrets have to be true.

Jeff Bender‘s work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Okey-Panky, Electric Literature, Guernica, CityArts, and the Monarch Review. He received an MFA from Columbia University and is a former Writers-in-the-Schools resident.