Title: The Atavist
Subtext: The travel agent travels.
Date: 18 Oct 15 (Sunday in the PM)
Time: 1 minute
Replies: 53
Revisions: 4
Publicity: Workshop

“I only want a drink,” Peter said. “Some water. I’m very tired, and I feel sick. Otherwise, I would be happy to celebrate. This is the Children’s Festival, isn’t it? Tét Trung Thu?”

The waiter looked surprised. “Yes. You know it?”

“I do. I’ve recommended it to many people.”

Then a bell rang, and a group of children rushed in through the restaurant’s open front door. They shook tiny noisemakers and stomped the floor with their thick wooden shoes. The boys wore red robes, and the girls had been dressed in yellow frocks. They were received warmly by the people in the restaurant. They were kissed and hugged and offered candy and handfuls of bright coins to stuff in their pockets.

The children then pointed to the back of the room. They shouted and clapped until the owner removed a wooden box from his register. Inside the box were dozens of narrow red envelopes. When the children saw this, they roared and pressed forward. They broke around Peter like waves. He watched the owner distribute the envelopes to the children, who held them above their heads and cheered.

After the envelopes had been handed out, the children ran to the front of the restaurant. At the door, they gestured for everyone to follow them. Peter remained sitting as the restaurant emptied onto the sidewalk and into the streets. The sudden silence that was left hurt his ears.

Peter turned to look for the waiter, but the man was gone. At the back of the restaurant, the owner fiddled with his stove. The wooden box had been put away.

The Thread (53)

 Author's voice in grey. 

  1. How could I not think of Wonka Bars.

    The subtext brought this one home.

    This is a true vignette – true to form. I like that.

  2. I’m still struggling with what a vignette is and isn’t, its characteristics, its form and function, so I’m glad this piece is more vignette than not. I’m also glad to build up goodwill for the next few pieces I’m writing, which, um, might not be so vignette-ish.

  3. No stress on vignette or not – just enjoyable and appreciated because they give room for the reader to play outside the edges of them, and they fit into the schedule of modernity, which tends to be unforgiving to such arts.

    Have you read this, Mako –

    A vignette is a brief evocative description, account, or episode – a small illustration or portrait that fades into its background without a definite border

    Around 200 or 350 or 500 words as a general matter, but rather than get caught up in numbers think of a vignette as a reason to make neutral time meaningful – traffic, doctor’s office, elevator, bedtime, train stop, coffee buzz, etc.

    A vignette is a spirit, not always a letter of law

    The vignette is more of an invitation than a command

    Fiction is preferred, but again, don’t get all hung up in it

  4. I did see that, Elk. I just think it’s an interesting question — what is a vignette? And since it seems so important to the site, I want to give it the proper consideration.

  5. Let’s do this if y’all wanna do this. Give me your confines of the vignette, bearing in mind that I think it’d be illegitimate for one’s explanation to exceed one’s own conception of vignette length, should there be a length parameter, which — to start this convo right here — I think there should be.

  6. @rooster

    As someone very new to the site, I feel uncomfortable offering anything other than observation. My primary goal is to understand.

    That said: I think the vignette criteria as written are fairly unlimited. There’s the word count, of course, which I agree is crucial. Fiction is “preferred,” but it’s not a rule. And the other criteria — making time meaningful, writing as invitation, creating something that seems to exist previous to and after the specific words on the page — are qualities of all good writing, no matter the form.

    For me, the slight confusion is in the “spirit” of the vignette, which I’m not sure I’ve nailed down. And on that subject, I’d love to hear other opinions.

  7. Peter is such a mysterious character to me. It’s interesting that I know nothing of his physical appearance, and yet he undoubtedly has a physical presence in this story. (If it weren’t for the electricity running through his bones and meat, we wouldn’t get to experience this scene.)

    And though I know nothing of his emotional status, that, too, has a presence, which I think is linked to his not getting his water and how solitary and seemingly abandoned he is at the end.

  8. And if there are vignettes, are there also vigns?

    Here are some nice OED defs of vignettes:

    An ornamental or decorative design on a blank space in a book or among printed matter, esp. at the beginning or end of a chapter or other division, usually one of small size or occupying a small proportion of the space; spec. any embellishment, illustration, or picture uninclosed in a border, or having the edges shading off into the surrounding paper; a head-piece or tail-piece.

    For example (from 1820):

    In the American bank notes, the vignette, words, and writing, usual in such notes, are surrounded by a curiously engraved border.


    A brief verbal description of a person, place, etc.; a short descriptive or evocative episode in a play, etc.

    For example (also from 1820):

    I have thought of writing a little book of ‘vignettes’.

  9. @myna – There are “vignes,” or “vynges” as Chaucer would’ve writ. Time’s shaky hand has changed it to “vine.”

    But does anyone speak of a “little vine?” Yarn, perhaps, but never the vine. And why not? Is it that we prefer to bury our faces in the spun softness of yarn rather than face the thorns?

  10. I like vigns (like “vines”). I’d like to see a channel for vigns, actually.

  11. Thinking of various potential atavists in and around this story is fun sport.

  12. Good call on emotional status, Myna. The piece leaves it as a minor-chord souvenir.

  13. Vignettes are like pornography, etc. etc.

  14. Also, I think that when it comes to a vignette, there is always a there there. Like let’s say you went to look for your childhood home and you couldn’t find it, or it was gone. And you said to someone upon return:

    “There is no there there.”

    That would be fine. But the account you share upon return, or the narrative someone else may share about your experience, or the yarn that gets shared by someone that overheard the narrative (call it short or made up if you like, but do not call it unfinished, shallow or feeble), is something that could very much have a there there.

  15. In continuing this conversation with myself, I would also add that a vignette is not only a thing (a story for example) in which something happens. It’s a happening on its own first. The vignette we see on the page is a reflection of the original vignette in reality. For example, you see the vignette in your kitchen sink after a party, on the edge of the dryer after someone else emptied your pockets, or on your fresh new carpet where you left your two year-old to go get a paper towel. Then you go to the page and put the vignette on the page. It’s a patch from reality. It happened or could have happened. It could imply something happened before and that something else could be happening after. But it stands on its own.

  16. The condition of no there being there is itself a there there.

  17. I’m using the last bit of juice I have to write today in this reply thread. Annnnnnd done!

  18. @horse

    I’m not sure I followed everything you wrote so I apologize if I end up mischaracterizing any of your points. And please correct me.

    Are you suggesting that a vignette has a fractal quality, in that it’s a small thing that possesses the same characteristics and meaning of a big thing? Because that actually makes a lot of sense to me. A vignette isn’t an abstract or an excerpt, and although it can exist on its own, it lives in a constant state of echo with something larger but not apart from itself. I get that.

    That’s actually one of the ways I’ve gone about creating pieces for the site. I’ve taken old short stories that didn’t work and tried to locate their hearts. And by “hearts,” I mean the part of them that in some way reflects every part of them. These are sometimes long stories — 5,000 or 6,000 words — that I am shocked and pleased to find can function as 350-word, well, vignettes.

    It’s horribly wasteful, but at least I have a good recycling program in place.

    One last thing, Horse: when you’re re-juiced, could you explain the phrase “patch from reality?” I’m not sure I understand what you mean, but I very much want to because it sounds interesting.

  19. Yes to fractals. I actually think that’s a nice way to consider it all. I’d be surprised if it hasn’t come up before in terms of vignetting. If it hasn’t, good call.

    In terms of patches, I was thinking about reality as one huge, maybe infinite canvas. You grab a piece of it and like Velcro you put it on a blank place (the page) all by itself. That thing on the page is the patch.

    So I’m going to try to do fractal + patch: You have a jigsaw puzzle. It’s all of reality as you see it. Each piece of the puzzle has all the qualities of the whole puzzle. You take one piece of the puzzle and stick it up somewhere for all to see. Ok, that needs some work. I’m having fun though. @myna? Are you there?

  20. Quilting the quantum narrative.

  21. I like the patch concept, but think of it differently — like you take scissors to reality and cut out a moment from its larger context. The residual source, the infinity of what’s unstated that runs around, before, and after, becomes a playground for the reader — an ultima thule. Only the vignette is captured. The rest becomes indefinite forever. The vignette doesn’t represent what’s left behind; it actually leaves it behind.

    Rad fractals, though.

  22. @horse

    Ah, I see. I was caught up on the word “patch.” I kept thinking of it in terms of “a patch for the inflatable raft” rather than as a piece of something. I think what you might run into with that definition, though, is the same thing I question about the site’s current definition of a vignette: it seems applicable to all good writing. If a vignette is a discrete form, we should be able to find that one quality that distinguishes it.


    That makes sense to me, too. But I suppose I would disagree with you about how cleanly a vignette could leave behind its place of origin.

    Writing is holistic — the tone, word choice, imagery, themes, structure, point of view, etc., of a piece all speak to the whole. In other words, writing has DNA. Therefore, although you could certainly excise a portion of writing and have something that functions on its own, you could never entirely divorce it from what came before (whether what came before exists on the page or in the author’s imagination). A vignette might not necessarily represent its parent document, but I would say it suggests it. And I think those suggestions are what create a vignette’s misty borders.

    But then don’t all good pieces of writing suggest things larger than themselves? In theory, isn’t Middlemarch a patch of Horse’s infinite canvas? Something scissored from reality, as Elk put it? Is Middlemarch not a vignette only because it’s a billion pages long?

    The form will inevitably expand to accommodate the artist, not the other way around. That’s how it always is with forms. Maybe the only difference between forms is word count. That would be easy.

  23. Tend to agree with Mako, in a way. Borges in my mind writes very short, dense novels. Word count doesn’t matter. But if there is something of the novel in his short stories, there is categorically a novel with qualities to speak of, negating the idea of non-categorization.

    I don’t have a good definition of a vignette, though I think it’s reductive (such an insult to call something reductive) to try. But I also think it’s good exercise, but only in the way that pushups are good for the feet or squats can break a fever.

    If anything, we might get a vignette out of this.

  24. The novelist consciously creates a world. The vignettist consciously doesn’t. Both fail, but that distinction tinctures.

    And yes — per force — it is, in part, a function of length.

    It’s not about the qualities of good writing as much as it is about the characteristics of a form.

  25. Gotta disagree about world creation. Vignettes can form worlds and novels don’t have to.

  26. Then you don’t disagree. I said “both fail”. It’s the intention of design at the outset and throughout that tinctures the respective products. Setting out to create x will in all likelihood make the product produced thereby different from the product produced by setting out to create y. I suppose there’s a universe in which there’s an outcome that makes them the same (Library of Babel), but I repeat — in all likelihood.

  27. @bear

    Agree. It is reductive to define a writing form, but I think maybe I find more value in the process of doing so than you do. It’s always helpful to remind ourselves that art is limitless and that we, as artists, are therefore capable of the limitless.

    Because it’s not as if we were ever going to put our thumbs on what a vignette is, unless by only using word count as the criteria. For instance, I always love how Miss Lonelyhearts is inevitably labeled a novella, while The Stranger is one of the world’s great novels. Both feature the same richness of time, place, character, and theme, and both explode in an infinite number of wonderful directions. But one’s a novella, and one’s a novel because Miss Lonelyhearts is 30K words and The Stranger is 31K.


    I think I understand what you mean. Are you saying the difference between forms is about intention? That makes sense to me, and it certainly is relative enough to be widely applicable. I’ve always thought the difference between a prose poem and flash fiction (if one even exists, which it probably doesn’t) often comes down to authorial intent.

    But I’m not sure I agree with the intention being “not creating a world.” I’m not sure any writer really sits down with the intention of denying the world-building that is arguably inherent in sticking one word next to another. But perhaps I’m not understanding you, or perhaps we need to better define “world.” Could you expand on what you mean?

  28. The world is indivisible.

    There is no such thing as a fraction of a world, for that fraction is then that world.

    The intention of a vignette is the creation of either a world or a fraction of a world, which in either case is the world.

    There’s no meaningful definition of novel, novella, or vignette.
    There’s only the conventions of our world.

    The conventions of our world are meaningless and thus indefinable.
    Some of the most important aspects of our lives are indefinable.

    This reply is the most productive procrastination I’ve accomplished all day.

    Meaningless and indivisible, procrastination is the world.

  29. Rabbit drops by with a prose poem.

  30. I guess what I’m saying, Mako, is that a discussion on literature isn’t quite as important, in my view, as literature itself. It’s okay to have the conversation, but ultimately the conversation doesn’t make it happen, and can even be a little counterproductive. Akin, I’d say, to spending all day setting up the rules of the game and having no time to play. Streetlights are on. Gotta go in.

    There’s a pretension to it that has nothing to do with actual writing.

    Elk, I disagree with the original and the new premise. I don’t think both fail, unless you mean literally fail to actually create a new physical world. That literature cannot do. But of course we all know what literature can do.

    And as we’ve discovered time and again, intent has nothing to do with it.

    The vignette can be whatever it is. The only thing that matters is an arbitrary word count, and this too is arbitrary.

    I’ll throw in this paraphrased line from Zappa: Rating guitarists is a stupid hobby.


  31. But what the hell do I know?

    Less and less, it seems.

  32. Not so sure literature can’t create new physical worlds. What about a church? A battlefield? One of them big ol’ Buddhas?

  33. We can be philosophical or we can be practical or we can be both. Rooster Land has a premise and it’s enjoyable. Certain to continue evolving, but not in the direction of nothingness. And don’t bother getting philosophical about everything and nothingness. I’m at an age where I don’t care to care. There are more immediate concerns.

    The fact of the matter is that if you say you don’t know what a vignette is I question your sincerity.

  34. There’s a pretension to it that has nothing to do with actual writing.

    I agree that there’s a pretentiousness, etc. But it doesn’t have to be there. We can have the same conversation without that.

    Anyway, try this. Take away the word vignette and read a few random pieces from each animal on the site. Put the similarities in a box. Then name that box. Share the name you come up with after. Then let’s talk about that.

  35. +1 ? +0.5 ?

  36. Also:

    1. Vernon Reid
    2. Charlie Christian
    3. Robby Krieger
    4. Jimi Hendrix
    5. Nancy Wilson
    6. Steve Vai
    7. Tom Verlaine
    8. C. C. DeVille
    9. Son House
    10. Frank Zappa

  37. I’m wondering why we would, Horse. Why are we making that inquiry? Does it make any difference? Does that lead to more creativity?

    I would say it doesn’t. It’s interesting and maybe valuable in its own right, but it’s different from actual writing.

    We can argue this til the cows are blue in the face. I just call it overthinking – which, again, I’m for, despite its lack of benefit to production.

  38. We don’t have to, Bear. I’m just saying we can talk about it without the pretentiousness. And the box exercise was, I thought anyway, a way to do that. Ultimately I agree. I’d rather be writing a vignette right now.

  39. I can’t believe you put Hendrix ahead of Nancy Wilson.

  40. I’m not saying we can’t, Horse. In fact, let’s, if you’d like. I’ll start.

  41. I’ll offer this last bit: I’m a little wary of trying to define what it is I’m up to. That should be the job of someone else outside of the situation – if anyone is at all interested.

    Once you start trying to define, you limit, you become conscious, and that, to me, is where the creative parts of us begin to die. Best to let go of all that and to just, if I can be really reductive, be.

    That’s all. That’s all I’m trying to say. That and that I can’t believe Rabbit left Peter Frampton off his list.

  42. I feel compelled to join the circle.

  43. And there you have it – a vignette.

  44. @falcon – Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for bringing that clip into my life.

  45. And Bear’s offline contribution to my otherwise unassailable list is too perfect not to share:

    11. Nigel Tufnel

  46. I just had a hearty and robust laugh, Falcon.

    Of course, it’s all just masturbation.

    I’m wondering if that’s how they came up with that – the phrase itself.

  47. Boy, that conversation went elsewhere. Nice work, everyone.

  48. The vignette shares Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography.

  49. That’s what I meant above, albeit in that ambiguous shorthand. I guess what I should have said was, the Horse is like Justice Stewart on the issue. May the horse be with you, Potter.

  50. Something lost in all of this, I think, are the narrow red envelopes. Are they what remind Elk of Wonka Bars?

  51. Indeed.

  52. Usually, when someone says that something is masturbation or masturbatory, I immediately get really interested in it. It seems like, often, when something’s called masturbatory, the idea is that that thing isn’t worthy of attention somehow – or that paying attention to it isn’t quite worth it.

    But then, whenever I pay attention to the masturbatory thing, it gets really interesting. Part of this, I think, comes from the fact that masturbatory is one of my dad’s favorite words. I remember he called the movie A Serious Man masturbatory, but I think it’s a fantastic movie. And, anyway, what’s wrong with something being associated with masturbation in the first place?

    But then again – too often I’m contrary just to be contrary.

  53. Or all of this reminds me of something that Diane Arbus said about boredom – which is a concept that I often relate to masturbation. She said something like, “We pass through boredom into fascination.” I wonder if the same thing happens with the masturbatory.

New Reply

Rooster Land
Verses & Vignettes &c.


It has been 1904 days since Rooster Land congealed online.

Nota Bene

"It seems to me that popular novels in our age might serve the same function as stained-glass windows did in the Middle Ages." – Andrew Greeley