What Novella-in-Flash writers can learn from Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953; Chicago: Third World Press, 1993), pp. 180.

Subject matter: A coming-of-age story about an African-American woman, from childhood to motherhood. The novel illuminates the ordinary, daily struggles (social, domestic and spiritual) of a black woman in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s. 

Structure/Style: Thirty-four vignettes (in close third-person) of mostly 2-5 pages, often making vivid use of setting and description, and often ending with a kind of gentle epiphany or musing that feels poetic in instinct. (The novel actually began as a sequence of poems but was rejected by Brooks’s publisher in that form.) It feels like a novel of quietly fraught reflection, as Maud Martha witnesses the world around her and contemplates its meanings and her place in it. Other than marriage, home ownership and motherhood, there are few major dramatic events (at least, not ones with lasting consequences) occurring in the plot. We glimpse a “story arc” mainly through the overall passage of time and personal development of the protagonist’s consciousness as she navigates from childhood to motherhood; a sense of “plot” moving forward is barely suggested. The central struggle feels spiritual in nature – how to make a life count and how to be happy. As Asali Solomon has put it: “good days and bad, no headlines.”

What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?

(1) A Single Character Study – If a writer wants to understand how to explore one central character really profoundly using a classic novella-in-flash form, they could do worse than use Maud Martha as their model. Maud Martha, published in 1953, has a strong claim to be the very first fully fledged novella-in-flash/novel-in-flash (it runs to 180 pages, so could be said to be almost novel-length). It is the epitome of the novella-in-flash as a character study, a coming-of-age story revealed only through impressionistic, individual moments. The early chapters (1-10) cleverly telescope time as they skip through her childhood years. They are a wonderful example of using “foundational” early chapters to establish the key values and character qualities that a novella is going to explore – in this case, Maud Martha’s place in the world and within her family, the broader context of social conventions of the era and aspirations to status, the financial insecurity of her family, romantic attachments, and the unsettled inner world of Maud Martha herself. As a character portrait the book is wonderfully rich: we watch Maud Martha being overlooked or mistreated, we sympathise with her struggles in terms of self-esteem, inferiority and shaky social status, her experience of racial prejudice; we warm to her determination to be a good person and her instinct for self-sacrifice. We admire her resistance in the face of her difficulties, her will to live positively and embrace life. The novel is a portrait of an opinionated young woman forming her consciousness. Brooks delivers all this effortlessly, exploring subtleties with a light touch that is incredibly sophisticated and skillful.

Invitation:  to what extent could your novella-in-flash go really deep into a single character’s worldview and experiences, even in third person?

(2) Epiphanies – Particularly notable in this novel-in-flash is Gwendolyn Brooks’s use of the quiet, almost transcendent epiphany after Maud Martha witnesses some small detail of the world around her. Gutting a chicken, listening to music, a view of dandelions, trapping a mouse – Maud Martha’s intelligent reflections and her instinct for musing mean that these moments take on deeper, spiritual qualities. She witnesses the world and draws conclusions about herself and how to live. These chapters are perfect studies in how to wring every last drop of meaning from a simple scene.  

Invitation: In what ways could your main character(s) be sensitive to the world, and be provoked (by what they witness) into thoughtful/emotional/sensory response?

(3) Social Context – The individual life here is set within a vivid social context: Maud Martha’s sense of her own mortality and her spiritual search are sparked by witnessing the deaths of relatives, and she experiences friction from society’s expectations about womanhood and racial identity. We know her partly through seeing her community connections with family, friends and neighbours, and partly through watching her soak up contemporary culture. Maud Martha is an examination of social affectation, signals and customs, and the book shows us very effectively how to portray one character from various social angles – the individual framed within a broader context. Seeing her through this wider lens, and through an accumulation of situations like a montage, we come to understand the main character much more fully and more intimately.

Invitation: to what extent could you set your main character(s) within a broader and more meaningful frame, by depicting significant details of the social context and culture in which they live?

Flexible Novella-in-Flash self-study course: https://novella-in-flash.com/4-module-short-course/

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