BALTIMORE — In Joseph Young’s parlor, there are words on the ceiling: “They came. They went,” they read.
There are words on the computer, the windows, the kitchen cupboard, the bedspread upstairs.
Young is a writer, but his most recent work isn’t found on paper. For the foreseeable future, his Hampden rowhouse will tell a story.
The MicroFiction RowHouse is an immersive installation of Young’s microfictions, or stories around 10 to 50 words, by his definition. Using photocopy transfer and a number of other methods, he’s printed his stories on virtually every type of surface in every type of room in the house.
The rowhouse, in stories as short as two words, imagines the life of a fictional family that might have lived there over the years, Young said, using the rooms and the items that now tell their stories. The family isn’t inspired by anyone Young knows, but rather a “conglomeration of different people and things that people tend to do,” he said.
The MicroFiction RowHouse is meant to be “community-oriented,” Young said, open to the public through events, readings and by appointment. He’s raised $1,150 through a GoFundMe campaign he launched in early July to support the project, but will go forward with the installation regardless of how much money that brings in.
The RowHouse kicked off events Aug. 12 with a performance by psychedelic band Duchess and the DeadBirds and will host a number of public workshops, musical performances and literary readings throughout August and September, including an opening reception Sept. 9.
Though Young has been writing microfiction since 2006, the genre has grown in popularity in the last five years. While the exact length and definition of microfiction is subject to diverse views in the literary community, Twitter users like @veryshortstory and @terriblytiny use the social media platform’s 140-character limit as a storytelling parameter. In 2012, the British newspaper The Guardian challenged prominent writers to tell tales in tweets. That same year, Twitter began its Twitter Fiction Festival, which ran through 2015. The nanofiction literary magazine Nanoism and its accompanying Twitter account have run since 2009.
The form is attractive because it’s “accessible, but a little bit mysterious,” said local writer Justin Sanders. Sanders used to edit a Baltimore-based literary series called “Artichoke Haircut” and will host a reading at the Microfiction RowHouse in September. “How you whittle down these narratives … that’s such a fascinating artistic process.”
Sanders sees the form proliferating in the internet age due to increased consumption habits, shortened attention spans and expanded access.
But Young has never tweeted his stories (though he did used to text them, he said). His microfictions read more like poetry than novels, and they take more than a quick scan to absorb.
“For a long time, I had this idea that flash fiction or microfiction shouldn’t try to replicate what longer fiction is better at,” Young said. “Trying to create an entire world, an entire story with the same texture that a short story or a novel could achieve in a much shorter form is kind of not using the form in the best way.”
But that doesn’t mean microfiction can’t have depth. In the MicroFiction Rowhouse, Young imagines a family’s celebrations, defeats, tense moments and serene ones on the surfaces of commonplace items. The desktop computer reads “happy birthday,” lending the otherwise inanimate object a personal history. A window nearby speaks of an escaped cat. In the kitchen, there is talk of food stamps and a blood-boiling search for car keys. Upstairs, a story on the bedspread tells of the couple who might lie beneath it.
Young’s project is eight to 10 years in the making, he said. He’s been actively creating microfiction since 2006, and has published numerous chapbooks, as well as “Easter Rabbit,” his book of microfiction.
His stories started out as more traditional 500-word stories, he said. “Then, they started getting smaller and smaller,” partly due to his work with visual artists. But putting his stories on walls and in visual spaces was part of a desire to do something bigger and more physical, he said.
“I think Joe was a little jealous of painters because their work had weight,” said Hampden artist and Young’s frequent collaborator Christine Sajecki. Sajecki originally taught Young how to transfer words from paper to “almost much any surface,” she said, and will teach a transfer workshop Sept. 19 at the rowhouse.
To put his stories on most household surfaces, Young made paper printouts of each word — and for bigger transfers, each letter — at a local FedEx. To complete the transfers, the paper is placed on the desired surface, doused with wintergreen oil and rubbed vigorously with a smooth, flat surface. The magic of the wintergreen oil is a bit of a mystery, but it likely works because “copy toner is heat sensitive,” Sajecki said, and the oil warms when rubbed.
And the transfer tool of choice? A wooden spoon. Young uses the same one he started with when Sajecki taught him the method in 2008, he said.
“It has the right feel and I can vary the amount of pressure I need to apply given the surface being transferred to,” Young said. “My arm is fairly sore, though it’s something I’ve gotten used to.”
Young originally tried to find another space where he could create the MicroFiction RowHouse, approaching both nonprofit and private entities to locate a rowhome for the project, but eventually landed on his own home. His roommate was moving out, and the timing felt right.
“I was still putting my microfictions on the walls of galleries and on the walls of some private homes, but I’d never gotten to that point where I could fill an entire rowhouse with them,” he said, “So, I decided that I would fill my own house.”
Young’s project is a natural fit for his Hampden neighborhood, where there is a “vibrant art scene,” said Hampden Community Council President Matt Stegman.
“I think thats one of the things we really value in the neighborhood and what makes us different from other places to Baltimore,” said Stegman.
This isn’t the first time Young’s home has been transformed into an art space. The house itself has a history of creative occupants (he rents it from Donna Sellinger, a member of the Wham City arts collective), evidenced by an upstairs hallway bearing a chaotic collage of wallpaper left by artists past. Young also held a house-wide showing of his works in 2015, he said.
When the public arrives to read his stories, Young hopes they’ll find “a different way of looking at a story.” As for Young, he’ll be sharing his space with the fictional family for the foreseeable future. Asked how long he planned to keep the microfictions around, he laughed and said, “that’s a really good question. I’m not really sure.”
The house is a good fit for Young’s microfiction, said Sajecki, which often assigns great importance to the space between words.
And the home, though a physical expansion of the genre rather than a digital one, is a natural progression in bringing microfiction to those who might be unfamiliar with the literary scene.
“I think microfiction as a genre works well to bring in outsiders,” Sanders said. “Joe’s work really speaks to that. … He’s turning private media into public media.”