Can you tell a story in a sentence? Evidence points towards yes. Just look at the influx of various types of tiny fiction. From hint fiction to six word memoirs. Super short, super concise stories are everywhere. But quantity does not always mean quality. Just look at the six word memoir site and you see a multitude of generality. Story comes from the details, from being specific. The old legend is that when Hemingway was challenged to write the shortest story possible he came up with,
“For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
It is unknown whether or not he actually wrote it. But whoever wrote it struck a chord and inspired many. Just six words, but their specificity contains an entire narrative. It is up to the reader to bring whatever backstory they want. This is the beauty of all fiction, words remain open to interpretation. Once a reader takes in a story in becomes theirs. They see what they want and the writer’s intentions become less relevant. It is easy to see this as a failure or a problem, when really it is freeing. You create something, and if you’ve done well enough it goes out in to the world and people make it their own. From specificity come universality. We relate to things that are small. So even in a small story, even in one sentence, a narrative can be fleshed out or come to fruition.
Look at the opening of Other Persons, by Juan José Millás,
“I’m another person now, since the accident. My family, my friends, my colleagues from work, everyone knows that my car flipped over four times and that I was hospitalized for four months—one month per rollover—but no one noticed the changes in my personality.”
He sets the scene, using words that seem general, a car accident, a feeling of detachment. But he does not tell us the narrator is detached, he shows us, saying, no one noticed. And he gives specific details about the car accident, the repetition of the number four, which the narrator believes is a pattern. That shows us something about him. Shows he is strange, superstitious, without telling us. He let’s the reader figure it out.
Aimee Bender works similarly in The Rememberer,
“On his last human day, he put his head in his hands and sighed and I stood up a kissed the entire back of his neck, covered that flesh, made wishes there because I knew no woman had ever been so thorough, had ever kissed his every inch of skin. I coated him. What did I wish for? I wished for good. That’s all. Just good. My wishes had become generalized long ago, in childhood; I learned quick the consequences of wishing specific”
This paragraph tells a whole story, within the larger story. Bender does this by showing us some important things about her narrator, how she kisses her lover, what she wishes for, but she also give this paragraph a forward motion, an feeling where you are almost holding your breath, by being very careful about her syntax. So careful, in fact, that you barely notice it. She begins with a long sentence, an intentional run-on. Then follows that with two, four word sentences and two, two word sentences. Ending with another long sentence broken up be a semi-colon. The long sentence lets you exhale with her, feel what she’s feeling, the physicality of it, the pain of love, and the short sentences let you inhale quickly, catch you breath so you can fully take in that last moment of resignation, of he acknowledgment that we never really get what we want.
In On a Difficult Sentence in Gatsby by Chris Bachelder, he saves up the story for the end, taking you the back way around through an almost essay. And it pays off when you get to this moment,
“Nevertheless, yesterday morning at breakfast you dropped your spoon loudly and said that you were pretty fucking sure that The Great Gatsby had once been a book about Gatsby and furthermore you prayed to your version of God that one day it will be again.
Fair enough. Fair enough. I have thought about this a lot, sweetheart, and I think that I agree with you.
Maybe it will be. If not for us, then perhaps for our children.”
The story lies down in the ending. We go from stiff and academic, the person, specific and emotional. This is an entire story in just a few sentence. And the reader relates to the specifics, to the dropped spoon, to the pet names. He doesn’t tell us about their relationship. He shows us. But what they say to each other, by setting the conversation at the breakfast table. By ending with the word children.
Be specific. And be honest. Give your reader some credit. And put your art out into the world.
For this last week there is no prompt (except, of course, that the story must be magical realism) but I’d like you to write a 600 word story. You can also turn in a revision of one of your previous pieces if you’d like, but it’s not a requirement.
It is a difficult task, parsing a story down to its pieces. Yet this is the basis of both reading and writing. So maybe it is a little easier (keeping in mind that writing is rarely easy) to start with the pieces and then figure out how to put them together. So let’s take it sentence by sentence, one step at a time and see if we can’t make something.
Let’s look at the very short Lydia Davis story, How Difficult. It begins,
“For years my mother said I was selfish, careless, irresponsible, etc. She was often annoyed. If I argued, she held her hands over her ears.”
Here is a beginning that contains a whole story. She introduces her narrator and the mother, and tells us a lot about both of them. She also establishes time. For years is a common phrase, part of our everyday vernacular, and yet here, in this story, Davis uses it to show her reader that the words spoken by the mother were spoken over and over, and that the narrator is recalling them from some time in the past, before the moment she begins speaking. She always shows uses this phrase to grant the story a sense of dread. All of this, with just two words. We take two words for granted, but in a story that is only a paragraph two words are everything. This is the beginning of the story. For years is the point from with we depart.
She continues (into the middle, the butter, the meat, pieces the reader chews on again and again)
“She did what she could to change me but for years I did not change, or if I changed, I could not be sure I had, because a moment never came when my mother said, “You are no longer selfish, careless, irresponsible, etc.” Now I’m the one who says to myself, “Why can’t you think of others first, why don’t you pay attention to what you’re doing, why don’t you remember what has to be done?” I am annoyed. I sympathize with my mother.”
While we begin with she was often annoyed, we now have, I am annoyed. With three words and a little bit of repetition (a handy tool for any length of story) she lets us see her narrator change, or be forced to change, even while the narrator herself cannot see it, saying, for years I did not change, or if I changed, I could not be sure I had. We see the change, see how just by her wondering, being self reflective, she has changed. And so Davis employs a little dramatic irony for us to enjoy. She also repeats the phrase for years, further hammering home the tedium of this conversation, that this mother and daughter have been having all their lives.
And her ending,
“How difficult I am! But I can’t say this to her, because at the same time that I want to say it, I am also here on the phone coming between us, listening and prepared to defend myself.”
The ending brings us back around, to the present moment, where they are talking on the phone (though she phrases it more beautifully, I am also here on the phone coming between us.) In just a paragraph (a short one at that) she crafts a story about a complex mother daughter relationship in a sardonic, amusing, but ultimately melancholic style. And she does it by keeping it simple. Sticking to the facts, so to speak. Giving the reader the information we need, showing us instead telling us, she crafts a story as deep and complex as any standard length piece.
For this week I’d like you to write a 500 word piece using a first person narrator and keeping the focus on the body. This is open to interpretation and can be any aspect of the body, voice, skin, hair teeth, and doesn’t have to be limited to the narrator’s body. Think of other stories you’ve read, from the Aimee Bender piece to Frankenstein and how those works used the body and the changes bodies undergo to propel the story forward.
Magic. Such a small word. Just five letters, but full of so much. It’s a little cheesy, right? And a little cliché. And we use it so much that in many ways, like love or hate or awesome, it has lost much of its meaning as a word.
But as a concept magic is wide open.
I am a true believer. Not in fairies or ghosts or big foot. But I am a believer in magic and the power that it can give writing. And if you want to write magical realism (or fabulism or literary horror or all of the above,) you need to become a true believer too. There is a reason that these tropes still exist, a reason why every culture worldwide has their own fairy tales, their own legends, their own specific little creatures. From totoros to selkies to witches these stories are beautiful because they take us of out of the mundane, but also because they tell us something about the places they come from. About the people who write them and retell them. These are stories of outsiders and of others. Magic is the course of the underdog, the unexpected, the person everyone forgets.
We like to think of art and writing as being free of rules. But even Picasso knew how to paint realistically. You need to learn the rules before you can break them. And you need to have a reason for magic before you can wield it in your work. We don’t write about monsters in the closet or creatures emerging from the water because they are exciting (though they are) we write about them because it is the only way or the best we know to say what we need to. Writing is about being compelled forward. It is about doing it because you must, because you can’t not. And magical realism is even more this way. We all come to writing for our own reasons, with our own obsessions. So how to we channel those obsessions into the work?
Let’s look at an example from last week. In The Rememberer by Aimee Bender our narrator opens by telling us her boyfriend is going through reverse evolution. We believe her (at least I do) because she makes the rest of story so mundane, so typical, so believable.
“I keep him on the counter in a glass baking pan filled with salt water.”
But surprises us with little details, little moments of strangeness, that, while not magical reinforce the surrounding surreal qualities of the story.
“I drip tears into the pan, a sea of me.”
She uses the concept of Ben going through reverse evolution, turning into creature after creature, to symbolize her heartbreak over the dissolution of their relationship. But by reading the story as describing something real, rather than simply as an allegory, the story can stand two-fold and it becomes more interesting and new than your typical breakup story. Thus Aimee Bender tells us a story about two people using magic in such a way that we cannot imagine the story without it. It makes the magic inextricable from the bones of the plot. Nothing feels forced or unnecessary. The fantastical elements are as intrinsic to the plot as the narrator’s voice.
This is how magical realism can be wielded to the greatest effect. Not simply because it is cool or exciting, but because it the best way to say what needs to be said.
So what do you need to say? And how can you use magic to say it?
This week I’d like you to write two pieces, one very short, only 200 words, and one a bit longer, up to 750 words. One may be about the topic of your choosing (provided it stays within the genre of magical realism) for the other I’d like you to include a surreal event. This could be something akin to a natural disaster, or something smaller and more dreamlike, or something beyond those possibilities of your own design. You can choose which length to apply to the prompt, either is okay with me.
It may be easier to begin with what micro fiction is not. It’s not a fragment. Not a beginning. It is not a piece of a bigger story. Micro-fiction is the story. It is a complete narrative told in roughly 1000 words or less. For this class you will be writing 750 words or less. And for your first assignment I’d like you to limit yourself to 500 words or less. But we will get to that in a minute.
Micro fiction, also called flash fiction, hint fiction, and sudden fiction is a style of writing concerned with brevity. In just a couple hundred words micro fiction contains all of the elements of the classic short story: protagonist, narrative arc, conflict, and resolution. A deft hand is required to wield so few words and gain so much. But I, as I’m sure you do, believe in the power of words. Micro fiction is like a snapshot. A small slice of life laid bare before a reader. Micro fiction, in order to tell a story in a small space often eschews the typically narrative arc in favor of flipping itself over to reveal the soft belly from the beginning. And the resolution doesn’t have to resolve anything. There is power and poignancy in an open door, in the characters continuing on after the story has ended. Micro fiction provides all of these possibilities. What may seem limiting can become freeing.
Like any writing, this requires focus. When combining micro fiction with magical realism it also requires bravery, a tough heart, and willingness to fail. Because little creatures can be unpredictable. It’s easy to let words and animals get out of control. These stories might want to bite the hand that feeds them. Let them. Try feeding them something else. Try writing from the ending backwards. Begin with famous last words and make your way to them. There are any number of ways to make a micro fiction. I want you to try them all.
For this week, I want you to keep your submission 500 words or less. Try to include a monster or other fairy tale creature in a modern setting. Or reverse it and write about a modern human in a past fairy tale. Try to avoid typical clichés. And make sure to sharpen your sentences and your claws.
Because you have only a few hundred words you may have to find a way to tell us what the monster of creature is without saying it fully. Make your reader understand, but don’t worry if some pieces seem to be enigmas. Micro fiction is often open to multiple interpretations. Let yourself get lost in the form. See what can happen. It’s okay to be scared as long as it doesn’t stop you from continuing to find your way through the haunted trees.
Header image: Laura Makabresku
To kick off our April Generative Writing Workshops at Apiary Lit, and to commemorate the start of National Poetry Month, here are a few general Generative Writing Tips we gathered from our workshop instructors, and our friends in the writing community!
- Keep a notebook, or even a notes file on a computer or phone, or a set of index cards folded up in your wallet (index cards are the best).
- Think about observation, participant observation, and generally training the brain toward composition through the act of observing and recording (and then transcribing, from notes to drafts, and then multiple rounds of revising) — think of it as one of those habits, like exercise, you’d like to develop.
- Try things. You’ll determine over time if you want to add them to your process or not. Don’t be afraid to collage, jumble things together, or start messing with syntax (perhaps or–perhaps not–in readable ways).
- Sometimes you’ll get stuck. Good to remember to be kind to yourself when this happens, or pivot, or find a way to take the pressure off (or switch to bones or smaller pieces or lists). — Just carry your notebook (/phone notes app, /both since they access different parts of the brain) with you and keep making observations. That act alone kinda tends to change the brain in such incredible ways, to fall more naturally into the act of composition. Making that a daily practice if it isn’t now, or making freewriting one, can really just sorta alter your brain (think of it like stretching and take the pressure off!).
- Keep a file folder for “daily work” (in the case of poetry or short pieces) — you may not always keep a daily practice of writing but having that folder encourages you to start making it a MORE daily habit — and it’s where your first drafts, essentially, can go, every time.
- Lists! Make lots of lists.
- When you’re putting together a piece of text, one approach is to free-write. Like stretching, it’s important to flex the muscles a bit, and clear the throat, if you will (or it may even be the case that the beginning of a poem/piece later turns out to be that “throat-clearing” or “runway” section that could be removed).
- For longer pieces, consider putting together a document or set of “bones” or simply things that feel and sound right, individual sentences or even phrasing, moments you know you want in there, things that encapsulate the mood and/or main moments or key sparks in sentences or small paragraphs. You can add in the connective tissue later — take the pressure off your generative mind, work in pieces, lists, and “bones.”
- Remember that you’ll have plenty of time to revise later, so take the luxury of exploration now.
- Write notes in your phone, then email them to yourself every week.
- also, listen to music in a language you do not speak
- (in response to Meredith’s tip about music): I use that^ tip for jogging. It works great. My play lists are made up of a bunch of dance music in languages I don’t speak. I slow down when I sing along, I think. (So, applied to one’s work — tempo, unfamiliarity or familiarity, various kinds of input.)
- places to make sure you have something to write on and write with (I have been given so many blank notebooks, so I just stash them all over): Bedside table – write that dream down as soon as you wake up! Your various bags, purses, backpacks–tailor the notebook or even index card to the size of the bag; On your desk – you may think, But my computer is on my desk! But sometimes you are doing one thing and suddenly think of a line of poetry or an opening sentence, and you don’t want to lose it or break your stride, so having post-its or a notepad nearby is useful; Your car — NOTE: Don’t try to write and drive – use your phone’s voice memos for that, but, what about those moments after you park or before you take off again?
- and also stash a notebook next to the seat or chair where you watch TV most often. Write down dialogue or weird lines from commercials for use later.
- Ride public transportation for a while with a notebook and write down interesting bits of language, character descriptions, imaginary backstories. (people watch)
- Mini-peer-review: This tip is less for generating new pieces and more for unblocking when you’re stuck: find a friend who’s willing to chat with you for a little bit (fifteen minutes is really all you need) about your project. Try to explain to them in thirty seconds to a minute what your piece is about. Then, talk about the problem you’ve encountered that you can’t seem to get past. Have your friend 1) repeat back, in their own words, what your project is about and 2) ask you questions about the project related to the problem that is giving you writer’s block. A fresh perspective from a curious friend who asks the right questions can help to unblock you! Having to speak for your own work, without giving someone something to read, is a difficult task, but it is an important step to truly understanding your purpose in the project.
Samuel Hovda, a poet in our Apiary Lit Workshops inaugural class, brought up the concept of rubber duck-debugging in response to Vanessa’s suggestion of mini-peer-review. We loved the idea of applying this concept and others to one’s work in the process of revision, and to the practice of articulating craft techniques.
Rebecca is doing this fantastic thing with sticky notes.
“One of the best things about having my own office is being able to post visual reminders about what I’m writing about and what I’m writing for. This is my second wall of the year/semester, which has been brewing for the past week or two.”
Of her first round of post-its, she writes: “I put these notes on the wall because they were questions and concerns, preoccupations and obsessions I had based on feedback from my first readers and my own sense of what needed to happen. And I just left the post-it’s there for a couple of months so I’d see them enough that they’d sink in.”
We also like looking at notebook cheesecake when we need a good pick-me up. Just don’t let it pressure you out of writing–get it down, get it on the page somewhere!
We hope you find these tips helpful! Share your own tips in the comments, and go forth and generate new work, writerkindred!
There are still a few seats remaining in our Generative CNF and Generative Poetry workshops for the month of April! The courses go at your own pace, so there is still time to join us! (Registration will remain open until Friday, April 3, at noon EST.)
Or check back with us this summer for these workshops and more!