Sometimes, when reading a book, a single passage makes you stop and take note of it, dog-earing the page, highlighting the lines, or as in my case copying it into file of maxims and similar memorabilia.
I’d been enjoying—immensely—Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, one of a slew of classics I’ve set aside to read now that I have a little more time, but a description towards the end of the book truly resonated.
For those unfamiliar with this work of fantasy, it’s based on imaginary conversations between Marco Polo and the Tartar emperor Kublai Khan. Polo relates his travels as a series of descriptions of the cities within the empire—cities that the emperor has not seen, and which may be invented instead of real. Each is a metaphor for an aspect of human behavior.
In the preface to the report of the city, Cecelia, Polo addresses Kublai’s reproach that he always jumps into the heart of the city, and never describes the space between cities. He wants to know all the places in his empire. But Marco replies that the cities are what he knows—what’s outside is irrelevant to him. He uses the example of a goatherd from the country, who knows every nuance of the land outside the city, but once inside, quickly becomes lost.
How like the choice we make when we write. Some writers establish a starting point—the center of their city—and explore from there. Others fill in the details of the journey to get to that point, describing the land beyond the borders, blending the past and present.
One of the criticisms I sometimes get from members of my writers’ groups and from editors at lit journals, is they want more—more background, more motivation, more feeling. I used to take that to heart and spend days or weeks adding detail about character backgrounds to address those areas. But lately I’ve moved away from such compliance.
When I read, I enjoy the challenge of parsing the author’s world based on the information provided. I don’t think a writer is under any obligation to explain that world, only to make it believable. If backstory isn’t there it doesn’t bother me. Personal knowledge and experience provides a foundation on which the story can build. This, I believe, is one of the reasons flash fiction works in our modern world—mass media has expanded peoples’ knowledge base, backgrounds don’t need to be explained. So if I can relate to the situation provided, I can move forward—the background is, frankly, irrelevant.
Some readers prefer the slow run-up. They want the explanations made clear. Nothing wrong with that. But like Polo and Calvino, my spaces are left intentionally blank, like the desert between two cities. The story is the story, and it’s up to the reader to fill in those gaps.
 You know those “nice” rejections—we really liked your story, but we wanted more…