Word Stringer Together-er
The Cork County Library system is sponsoring a short story contest. After I read about this in the Lee Valley Infomercial Magazine (or whatever they call the slim, cheaply printed publication that contains local news and adverts for machine hire, restaurants, and houses), I was very excited. The listing said that the story could be on any topic, was not to exceed 2,000 words, and must be received by 29 June.
Fantastic. I've had that horse story sitting on my hard drive for two or three years now. Might as well turn it in. Last weekend, I went to the library to collect an entry form and was crestfallen to find that although the story could be on any topic, it must involve a relationship between an older person and a younger person. I tried to convince myself that I could either adapt my story to fit the requirement or could write a new story before the deadline.
Every time I tried to think about this story, my mind sputtered like an old car on a cold winter morning. I couldn't picture these people in my head. Couldn't conceive of a situation in which to place them. Couldn't imagine fashioning a story line that wouldn't end up in some trite resolution that trumpeted the wisdom of age over the folly of youth. I bored myself before I'd even written a single word. I had one image, a writing prompt I found on McSweeney's, but the thoughts it brought to mind were devastating and depressing. I wasn't sure I had the fortitude to write it, let alone permit strangers to read it.
In the last six or seven months, I've had to think a lot about what writing is and how I'm doing as a writer. The InkWell Writer's workshops have helped me see that I'm not so much a writer as a word stringerer together-er. I love writing this blog and my travel reports because all I'm really doing is piling up words in a pleasing fashion to report what happened or how I feel about something. There's no character development, no plot twists, no themes to imagine. It's just telling what happened. I love words, I know how to construct readable sentences and I could diagram those sentences if needed, but I am less capable of inventing a story out of whole cloth.
I have two novels now where I've gotten to a certain point, about half-way in, and realised that the people were not who I thought they were in my head and that the story has lurched off course, stumbling down a blind alley like a drunk after closing time. Shaping a story and characters with realistic dialogue and tightly plotted events are not yet weapons in my arsenal.
Writing a short story is one of the more challenging tricks in writing. I know, it seems like they should be easier than novels. It doesn't work that way though. Novels have the luxury of developing slowly, of giving you acres of blank space to define yrou characters and lead them through the events of the story.
A short story doesn't have the luxury of space. Every word must be precise and do several jobs. There's no space for casual asides or throw-away subplots. In the case of this contest, I have seven pages in which to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Seven pages to capture the essence of the characters. Seven pages to craft a theme.
No pressure there, right? In a way, there's not any pressure. It's something to do for the challenge, to enjoy stretching the boundaries of my abilities. Knowing where my limits are helps me figure out how to get past them.
I have five days. Well, four, really, since I'll need one day to get the story there through the post. I just bought some chocolate and the Sunday newspapers, hoping that between the two, inspiration will strike. One word at a time, I hope to move from word-stringer-togetherer to writer.