Someone at work asked me to give a short presentation on writing stories. A funny thing about the current situation that has many of us working from home is that it prompted some of the people I work with to start holding weekly afternoon chat sessions, usually based around a hobby someone has, and it’s really been great. I’ve learned a few things about homebrewing beer and collecting antique cameras and, even better, I’ve learned quite a bit about some of the people we work with without ever leaving the house. So if we ever bump into each other—assuming we’re no longer staying six feet apart—I can ask them something intelligent about something they’re interested in, rather than just shuffling awkwardly and saying, “How about those Bears?”
Anyway I’m not sure where anyone I work with got the idea that I know anything about writing stories, but I decided to take up the challenge, and since it’s a pretty broad category I decided to narrow it down to a favorite genre of mine: flash fiction, which, among other things, gave me the chance to share some examples from Mydangblog. And even that’s a pretty broad category. It’s amazing how much you can say about extremely short stories. In fact I can tell you from experience that sometimes when I try to write an extremely short story it just ends up making it even longer, but that’s another story.
I offered, among other things, some examples of how broadly “story” can be defined, including, as an example, Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” which, although it’s a poem, also tells a complete story with elements of both comedy and tragedy in just twenty-eight words. Poems, after all, can be stories, and vice versa.
I also highlighted the importance of word count rather than number of pages in defining flash fiction since, technically, you can fit the entire Bible on a grain of rice if the font is small enough.
The subject of word count provided a nice segue into the sub-genre of the six word short story. Perhaps the most famous example is the story that’s often printed with the simple title Tragedy:
For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.
That story has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway but the earliest version was published in 1910 when Hemingway would have been just ten or eleven, several years before he started writing but two years after he started growing a beard. I also directed them to the website Six Word Memoirs, and shared an example of my own, titled The Pharos Of Alexandria:
In the darkness I found light.
It helps to know that the Pharos of Alexandria was a massive lighthouse and one of the seven Wonders of the Ancient World. And that’s where the discussion took a bit of a philosophical turn. One of the questions an author asks in writing any story is, How much do I want to leave up to the reader’s imagination? Or how much should I assume the reader will know? Another important question, especially with short stories, is, Am I being paid by the word?
I gave the presentation again for my local writing group, still over Zoom, and I noticed a funny thing. People politely muted themselves, except when I gave them a writing exercise and let them read the results if they wanted, and most turned off their cameras to save bandwidth. So whenever I slipped in a joke I’d pause awkwardly and hope they were laughing. And that’s why, as much as I enjoyed giving these presentations and hope to keep giving them, and I’m available for TED Talks, corporate gigs, bar mitzvahs, whatever, I hope even more that at some point I can do it in person, although probably still standing awkwardly six feet away.