Say It In 53 Words

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As some of you might know, I have an odd relationship with the short-short prose structure. I love to read those that are stunning, remarkable, odd, moving, magic, entrancing, curious, and and and. (Think: Vanessa Gebbie here. Meg Pokrass. Tania Hershman. Dinty W. Moore. Carrie Etter. Katey Schultz. Stuart Dybek. Tom Hazuka.) I have written a couple of short-short pieces–in fiction and in nonfiction–myself, and am not unhappy with them.

What bothers me, though, is the idea some writers have that flash fiction and its close relatives (prose poem, sudden prose, short-short, flash nonfiction, etc.) is something easily undertaken, harnessed, mastered, and published. I would posit that it is one of the most difficult forms of writing to do consistently very well; its writers have to avoid the trap of the punchline, the narrowly-told anecdote, the cryptic instance with no resonance. How short-short and flash writers avoid these things is another matter altogether (you who succeed with this genre, please do feel free to enlighten us via the comments section of this page!) But a good piece of the short stuff is remarkably satisfying. Perhaps more closely akin to a beautiful piece of visual art than to the long narrative: it gets to you quickly, takes your breath, and then gives you plenty of time and space to look and look again to see what you missed on the first read.

So imagine my absolute thrill when at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 I found myself the lucky winner of two short-short-short-short story contests sponsored by Press 53. The 53-Word Contest is a weekly call from Press 53 for writers to submit 53-word (no more, no less–titles not included in the count) pieces based on a proposed theme. The guidelines are tight and loose at the same time, allowing for a whole lot of imaginative play within a solid structure. You should try it.

Thanks to the two judges who chose my pieces: Meg Pokrass selected “Things I Wish You Heard,” and Kevin Morgan Watson picked “The Night I Said I Was Leaving.” You can read them each via the links attached to the titles, and you can read the complete Press 53 blog with its information on other contests, new books, interviews, and many things booky and literary here.

As always, thanks for reading. -PMc

8 Replies to “Say It In 53 Words”

  1. Hi Patty, and congratulations on both wins – strong stuff, excellent!

    Apologies for only just getting to comment here… and in response to your raising the question how “to avoid the trap of the punchline, the narrowly-told anecdote, the cryptic instance with no resonance…”

    I cant pretend to know much, but I do know this – I use a technique called ‘flash writing’ frequently, when I write fiction of any sort… writing incredibly fast, sometimes using prompt, sometimes not – and it is extraordinary sometimes, what appears. Sometimes, things ‘like stories’ appear. Sometimes characters, sometimes voices – but always always fresh connections and associations.

    Pause here… I have seen some writers stop here, tidy the typing, and send the work out. And that’s fine… sometimes it is good enough to hit somewhere. Sometimes it is very good… but mostly, honestly, mostly, 99% of the time, the work would benefit from revision, a close eye, and edit. Even if it is just to check. And check again, and make sure it is as good as it can be.

    So – what’s the upshot? You get work that fits your description above: “… the punchline, the narrowly-told anecdote, the cryptic instance with no resonance.”

    Im sure I have done plenty of those in my time! And perhaps some of those still creep out under the study door. But now…I revisit, revisit, revisit. I look among the easy stuff to find the words/phrases/sentences/occasional paragraphs that do not feel ‘easy’ or ‘surface’ but which resonate. And I make those the starting point of the real work.I will try to keep that sense, the voice, the resonance – the reason why it intrigues me.

    and I ditch the rest.

    There you go. That’s one person’s process. Hope it is helpful!

    1. Hello, Vanessa! Thanks so much for taking the time to respond–especially as busy and wonderful in the work you are! Your thoughts are right on (spot on, I guess you say.) It isn’t just writing quick, is it? It is about writing well, and that takes extra time. You well? Miss you! -Patty

  2. Hi Patty – I am fine – at the opposite end of the spectrum… just about to hit 90k with the next novel… what a journey we are on! Email me – when are you next in the UK??x

    1. Not sure, Vanessa. Thinking of a panel for NAWE, though, based on our long conversation with short story writers over here on my website. You think you might be up for NAWE? Be well. The writing sounds like it is going wonderfully for you. Good to hear.

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