In case you missed it this weekend, NPR announced a challenge to its creative listeners — the three-minute fiction contest. The concept is simple: write original fiction that can be read in at most three minutes; I gather this is about 500-600 words.
I think this is a great opportunity; I’m doing it, and I challenge you to join me. If you’re interested, the official details and rules are here (you can also get there from the main page linked above). The deadline is July 18th, so we still have more than 3 weeks.
I suppose there’s some smidgeon of a chance I or someone reading this will be the one person who gets interviewed on the radio and who gets some $25 book I’ve never heard of, but that‘s not the reason for my enthusiasm.
It’s easy to underestimate the power of the ultra-short story. If you are skeptical, follow the above link and listen to the story James Wood read as a tantalizing sample of what can be done with the form. The story is “For Sixty Cents”, by Lydia Davis; it weighs in at around 200 words, but it really got in my skin. The Object Lesson, my favorite work by Edward Gorey, haunts me still even though, or perhaps because, it never quite makes sense. (I don’t know how many words it has, but it can’t be many more than 100.)
I studied Spanish-language literature (mostly Latin American) at Denison University, so I’m one of too few Americans who knows what is sometimes called the shortest story ever written, Augusto Monterroso‘s
Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.
That’s not just the title, that’s the whole story. “When she woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” (Or he, or it, if you wish.) We discussed that one in one of my literature classes. I still remember that discussion; it was the most animated of the course. Everybody had vivid ideas about what the story was about, and everybody wanted to talk about them. (And this was a class in which, on most days, most people preferred napping to attempting to speak Spanish.)
A year or so ago, my wife was driving me and my daughter (now 6, then probably 5, maybe 4) around Columbus when my daughter decided to tell us a barrage of short stories. Her command of language was not great at that time, and not all the stories made a great deal of sense. They were all unmistakably stories, though. Each began “One day…” and ended with a long pause . . . followed by the next “One day…”. Some were about ponies or her cousins or Buffy (a prominent player in my daughter’s personal mythos), some were only a couple sentences while others seemed endless. But my favorite was the shortest. It came after an extremely long tale consisting principally of nonsense words. The story was “One day, a shark.” My wife and I, surprised, looked at each other, looked at our daughter to see if the rest of the story was forthcoming. But that was all, and soon the next story started up.
I love that story. “One day, a shark.” It has everything.
I used to write poetry and stories when I was in college. One year I made a project of writing a (rather amateurish) short story every single month, and I took an directed study in writing poems in Spanish under the unforgiving eye of Héctor Dominguez. But all that kinda fizzled out when I went to graduate school. Sure, I’ve made some fruitless attempts at writing poetry (or more precisely, I’ve made the same attempt dozens of times), but “Purple Tuesdays”, the poem I was challenged to write years ago, remains unwritten. And sure, I’ve said a lot of pretty things about wanting to do NaNoWriMo, but for five years I decided it would cripple my progress toward that Ph.D. Now I have my Ph.D., and I decided I couldn’t do NaNoWriMo last year because I was still finding my way around a new job in a new place and a new wife and daughter, and there’s substantial pressure to produce mathematics in this postdoctoral period. And the truth is I don’t have time in this phase of my life to write a novel. I wish I did, and maybe someday I will, but I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have time to write anything. This is an excuse to find a little time, write a little tale (get down tonight?), and I’m taking it.
So this is my pledge to you, oh six or seven people who are going to read this in the next couple days — this weekend I am going to write and submit at least one entry for the contest. I’ll post it here Monday morning. Here goes.
And I know that at least some of you reading this have a talent for writing. Maybe you used to write when you were younger and got distracted, or got too busy with life. Maybe you’ve always wanted to write something, or wondered if you could. Or maybe your significant other, parent, or child has talked about writing, but never quite gets to it. You know who you are; you’re the ones I’m talking to right now. Take an hour this weekend and write a three-minute story. An hour. You can find an hour. Get up an hour earlier, stay up an hour after the kids are put in bed, or skip an episode of House. Just take an hour and write something. That’ll be one more story than most people write in an hour. Maybe one more story than most people write in a year.
Because one day, a shark, and today just might be that day.