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02 April 2004 — Microfiction (14)

I am making progress as a writer. I force myself to be observant. I write daily. I've learned to revise. I'm aware of every little error. I wince when publishing a hurried weblog entry.

Despite my improvement, I have a lot to learn.

I'm taking Advanced Fiction Writing at Clackamas Community College again this term. (This is the fifth time in a decade, and the second time in a year.) Our class met for the first time on Wednesday night. Many of us are returning students; we liked Rick's technique enough to take the class from him again.

Rick has selected new textbooks this term. Instead of a traditional writing manual, we're reading from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, the first chapter of which impressed me. (I like the authors' example of revising a bit from The Great Gatsby to make it stronger.) Our fiction anthology — previously the wonderful Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction — has been replaced by Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories.

How short is really short? Try this gem:

Housewife by Amy Hempel

She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting," French film, French film."

This little book is fantastic. And intimidating. Here is a story from the book's editor (a story made more poignant by the knowledge that it is written from experience; Stern would not live to see the book's publication):

Morning News by Jerome Stern

I get bad news in the morning and faint. Lying on tile, I think about death and see the tombstone my wife and I saw twenty years ago in the hilly colonial cemetery in North Carolina: Peace at last. I wonder, where is fear? The doctor, embarrassed, picks me up off the floor and I stagger to my car. What do people do next?

I pick up my wife. I look at my wife. I think how much harder it would be for me if she were this sick. I remember the folk tale that once seemed so strange to me, of the peasant wife beating her dying husband for abandoning her. For years, people have speculated on what they would do if they only had a week, a month, a year to live. Feast or fast? I feel a failure of imagination. I should want something fantastic — a final meal atop the Eiffel Tower. Maybe I missed something not being brought up in a religion that would haunt me now with an operatic final confrontation between good and evil — I try to imagine myself a Puritan fearful of damnation, a saint awaiting glory.

But I have never been able to take seriously my earnestly mystical students, their belief that they were heading to join the ringing of the eternal spheres. So my wife and I drive to the giant discount warehouse. We sit on the floor like children and, in five minutes, pick out a 60-inch television, the largest set in the whole God damn store.

What a challenge! Many of my weblog entries might fall into the category of short short fiction were I to show more restraint. But, for the life of me, I cannot write this well.

Here's the short short story we discussed in class:

The Paring Knife by Michael Oppenheimer

I found a knife under the refrigerator while the woman I love and I were cleaning our house. It was a small paring knife that we lost many years before and had forgotten about. I showed the knife to the woman I love and she said, "Oh. Where did you find it?" After I told her, she put the knife on the table and then went into the next room and continued to clean. While I cleaned the kitchen floor, I remembered something that happened four years before that explained how the knife had gotten under the refrigerator.

We had eaten a large dinner and had drunk many glasses of wine. We turned all the lights out, took our clothing off, and went to bed. We thought we would make love, but something happened and we had an argument while making love. We had never experienced such a thing. We both became extremely angry. I said some very hurtful things to the woman I love. She kicked at me in bed and I got out and went into the kitchen. I fumbled for a chair and sat down. I wanted to rest my arms on the table and then rest my head in my arms, but I felt the dirty dishes on the table and they were in the way. I became incensed. I swept everything that was on the table onto the floor. The noise was tremendous, but then the room was very quiet and I suddenly felt sad. I thought I had destroyed everything. I began to cry. The woman I love came into the kitchen and asked if I was all right. I said, "Yes." She turned the light on and we looked at the kitchen floor. Nothing much was broken, but the floor was very messy. We both laughed and then went back to bed and made love. The next morning we cleaned up the mess, but obviously overlooked the knife.

I was about to ask the woman I love if she remembered that incident when she came in from the next room and without saying a word, picked up the knife from the table and slid it back under the refrigerator.

If, when I die, I can write this well, I will die a happy man.

Here are some exercises, if you're interested. (These are for you; they're not class assignments.)

Exercise one: In "The Paring Knife", what does the ending mean? Why does the woman slide the knife back under the refrigerator? (The class seemed divided on the significance of this act.)

Exercise two: Write a short short story of your own and share it with us. (It must be shorter than 500 words; it's best to keep it in the neighborhood of 250 words.)

I'll post my short short story later.

On this day at foldedspace.org

2003Crouching Tiger [part one]   In which I sing the praises of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and begin to tell the story of how Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai met.

2002Renice   I came home from work today and napped. I didn't wake up until Kris got home. Then I weaseled out of going to the gym. Again.

On 02 April 2004 (07:21 AM), Betsy said:

She slides the knife back under the refrigerator because that old incident should stay old and forgotten. It's a signal to him that she loves him and has forgiven him for whatever he might have said - and the past truly is the past.

She's a wise woman. It also reinforces the use of 'the woman I love' as her identifier - now you see one of the reasons why he does, and that it is most definitely present tense, and sincere (as opposed to ironic or sarcastic or wishful.)

On 02 April 2004 (09:33 AM), Lynn said:

I think they put the knife back so that they would find it again. It served as a reminder of a horrible event, yes, but it also made them both ashamed of how they had acted. It made them realize how much they loved each other and how they never wanted to act that way again. Someday, while cleaning again the future, they will come across it and relive the fight another time. They will both reflect on the lesson, and put the knife back in its place under the fridge; a constant reminder of their momentary lapse in judgment.

On 02 April 2004 (10:35 AM), Joel said:

What Besty said. Burying the hatchet in a moderne sense.

On 02 April 2004 (10:49 AM), Johnny Doe said:

I think that she just didn't want to wash the knife, but she didn't want to look at it, either.

On 02 April 2004 (11:07 AM), J.D. said:

For one of our in-class assignments, Rick showed us Grand Wood's famous painting, American Gothic. He asked us to write a short short story inspired by the painting. I immediately thought of a family story (involving Tammy, actually), which I appropriated for this exercise.

Here's the first draft of the story I wrote in class. I've since revised it, and I'll share the revised version later.

Noah rose at five a.m. to milk the cows. He always rose at five a.m. to milk the cows.

Tammy waited for him at the bottom of the stairs. "Well, come on then," he said. He picked up two pails and handed one to Tammy.

They milked the cows. Noah milked the cows. Tammy showed mild interest at the first, but her attention drifted to the sow bugs under the floorboards, to the tackle on the wall, to the shovels and pitchforks in the corner.

Squeeze squeeze and the milk shlupped into the pail. Noah watched Tammy climb onto the trough.

"Come over here," he said, and she did.

She sulked. She watched the cow switch its tail.

"Don't touch her tail," Noah said. Squeeze squeeze and the milk shlupped into the pail. Squeeze squeeze.

The cow squealed and bolted, kicking over the pail, knocking Noah to the ground. He stood to find Tammy crumpled in a puddle of milk, crying. Her pink dress was muddy with milk.

"I told you not to touch her tail," said Noah. He lifted her by one arm and grabbed the full pail of milk and then carried them both in to breakfast.

That's the first draft, as it spilled from my head, without even the slight revisions I did with the time remaining for the assignment.

I've since revised the story. I'll post my latest revision later.

I'd like to see some of you set aside five or ten minutes to write a short short story. Many of you are damn fine writers, and I'd love to see what you come up with...

On 02 April 2004 (11:21 AM), mart said:

i fear i'd have more luck whipping up a micro-musical piece or micro-painting in 5 or 10 minutes.

On 02 April 2004 (01:19 PM), kaibutsu said:

Hm. Microfiction is pretty much my thing at this point, my main avenue for creative output, as my site well attests.

The book that made me realize that it was a form unto itself, and not neccesarily just the product of artistic laziness on my part, was Lydia Davis' "Samuel Johnson is Indignant." (Which is an awesome book that I highly recommend to anyone with $10.)

Since we're sharing, here's a piece I polished off about a month ago, entitle 'Ouroborii.'

I have heard of a case of two children who ate each other for survival. They were siblings, brother and sister, and lived in a village not far from here, in those mountains off east. The story, as it came to me, is that they went into the woods one morning to play, only to become terribly lost. They grew scared, shouted and spun about, and wandered farther and farther from home, until they were on the wrong mountain with night fast approaching. They made themselves a bed of leaves and slept together fitfully through the chill. On waking the next day, they wiped their eyes and rubbed their bellies, and unwittingly strayed even farther.

The two were found months later in a high mountain cave, well after the snows had melted. They had resorted to cannibalism, as I said, eating each other slowly to hold off starvation. Through the winter they ate and ate, and yet never ran out of flesh. Like two snakes eating each other from the tail. Regardless, the man who found them thought at first that they were monsters, so thick were they caked in dirt and dried blood. Once he realized they were children, though, he gave them food, and lured them back to town with him.

When they were returned to civilization, they spoke little but their story still quickly spread. A priest and doctor came and found no wounds on their bodies. Entire limbs had grown back since they had been found. The priest was greatly troubled by this, not knowing whether to consider it miracle or witchcraft. He was troubled by the way they spoke to no one but each other, refusing to be separated. They often daydreamed at the windows for hours on end, staring out endlessly at the jagged horizon. In time, the priest decided it would be best to send them to different families, in the hopes they would begin to speak again. He sent the boy off to stay with a travelling pastor. But the children remained mute, refused to eat, and a few mornings later were dead, apparently of starvation. At the time, everyone was greatly bereaved, and many mourned the children's fate. It was a great sensation, running in the newspapers for weeks. For a while, all of the mothers kept closer watch over their children.

In later years, a memorial to the children was erected in the square, and travellers passing through would always stop to marvel. It was a grotesque statue, carved by a Dutch artist, depicting a little boy and girl in their tattered Sunday best, each swallowing the other's arm right up to the elbow.

As a child, that statue would often tower over me as I sat beneath it waiting, counting off the minutes.

On 02 April 2004 (02:15 PM), kaibutsu said:

Thinking on it a bit, I think it is curious that many of the 'rules' of narrative structure aren't discarded when working in very short form. I find that most of the fiction I write has a clear starting point - often a particular phrase and concept that roll into my head - and then develop into something else. And then, in the end, the new, developed form is tied into the original concept.

In the piece above, we begin with the canibalistic children, and the idea evolves into a kind of incestuous interdependence. And then, the statue returns us to the original vision of canibalism.

Despite the short form, a narrative still uses conceptual structure, character development, and sense of place to create a good story. In certain hyper-condensed pieces (Lydia Davis has a few stories less than twenty words long), we still have these structures, but in a hyper-condensed form.

Take, for example, Davis' "They Take Turns Using Words they Enjoy:" (quoted innaccurately from memory)

"It is extraordinary," said the first.

"It is extraordinary!" her friend responded.

There is certainly an implied scene here, a sense of space, character, and a definite structure and development, all in just twelve words. Amazing.

On 02 April 2004 (02:36 PM), Lynn said:

Ok. Here goes. I've only taken creative non-fiction writing, so that's what I'm sticking to. Plus, I've never shared what I've written outside the safety of the classroom. So, be kind.

The guys were waiting outside on their bikes and I hurried to join them. I brushed past my mother, but she held me by the arm.

“What shirt are you wearing?” she asked. “You need a bra. I’ll buy you one tomorrow.”

Her sudden interest in my breasts was confusing. My mother didn’t talk about subjects like this. Mention the birds and the bees, the facts of life, boys and girls, and a short and sarcastic answer was given as punishment for being curious about such things.

I joined my friends on my bike but avoided all curbs, potholes, and bumps of any sort so as not to make my breasts jiggle noticeably. We reached a wooded area where we climbed trees. With every reach toward a higher branch, my t-shirt pulled tight against my body. Feeling defeated, I slumped down on a branch with my arms crossed, refusing to go any farther.

I sat and thought about the lacey, scratchy bra my mom would buy. I imagined she would throw in some nail polish and a couple of V.C. Andrews’ books while she was at it. It was obvious she didn’t understand the ramifications of what she was doing to me.

I was a tomboy. My friends were boys. I played with kids who dealt with their emotions through the methodic application of wedgies, bra snaps, tittie twisters, and what’s-the-capital-of-Thailand games.

I thought of jumping. If I didn’t die, at least I would break a leg or, better yet, an arm. I couldn’t possibly be expected to slide a broken, casted arm through a bra strap.

“Hey, Lynn,” said Wade. “A kid in my class likes you.”

“Who?” I asked.

“I’m not supposed to tell you, but he asked me your name. He called you the girl with the long hair and the big boobies,” he said as he quickly swung off the branch below and well out of my reach.

I was embarrassed. But, I wondered about the mystery boy. There were sure some cute boys in Wade’s class and I considered which one I’d prefer to kiss in the wallball courts.

I found myself giggling – and uncrossing my arms.

On 04 April 2004 (07:54 PM), Joel said:

I was browsing through the contents of the garage sale; yard sale really, as they had no garage, when I saw them: four Star Trek commemorative plates. They had head-and-shoulder portraits of Picard, his first mate, Data, and the black captain from the other show. I looked at them and thought, "Jeff." They were marked ten bucks for the lot, so I bought them for eight.
I took them by his apartment that night. Jeff was entranced, gingerly taking them out of their Styrofoam frames and holding them up to the light. "My god, how did you get these?" I didn't answer, looking at them over his shoulder. Each character looked boldly out from the plate, and I noticed that all the backgrounds were the same pattern of streaking stars. They'd just painted the portraits over the same background.
"You're not supposed to eat off of them," I said. "Or microwave or cook with them. In fact, you might want to put them down until you find some gloves."
"Of course I won't eat off them," Jeff said, and went about the work of displaying them. This required emptying the top two shelves of his bookcase for the plates, and then taking everything out of the case and moving it into the living room and putting everything back in, and then a lot of sorting out only his best-looking books for the case, and eventually I just went to bed.
I woke up later on and went out into the living room. There he was, sort of looking at the plates out of the corner of his eye. He wasn't staring at them full on, just sort of glancing at them.
He stopped calling me after that. After awhile it didn't bother me that much, there were lots of guys around who were happy to scoff at Jeff and compliment me. A few months later, though, he invited me to his housewarming. It was an outstanding house, with lots of wood and thin furniture. The light switches were complicated affairs, and the kitchen was extremely well-appointed. I spent most of my time there, fooling with the pans and the Wusthof knives. I figured out how to use his Mandoline, and made a whole pile of zucchini coins. Quite a few of the guests wound up with me in the kitchen, so I fried the coins up on his spotless gas range. The guests talked a lot about Jeff's new job, which seemed to involve politics.
Jeff had become one of those busy hosts, bopping around from group to group. I had become one of those difficult guests, who duck miserably out of group to group. I snuck away and looked for the plates. I found them quickly enough, over the big new desk in his study, arranged in a diamond pattern with Picard at the top. I ducked miserably out.
Six months later I saw him in the paper. He'd married my senator.

On 05 April 2004 (12:25 PM), mart said:

great bit joel.

On 05 April 2004 (12:43 PM), tammy said:

jd that little milk pail incident will live in infamy I'm afraid. The most embarrassing part was grandpa stripping me and hosing me down at the faucet. I was only three but I definitely remember feeling embarressed! I wish I had the time to try my hand at microfiction but alas it don't fit into my newly defined roles of self discipline! Maybe some other time.

On 05 April 2004 (02:41 PM), Joel said:

Thanks, mart. kaibutsu, 'Ouroborii' is excellent. I thought about it all the way to work today on the bus. It was one of those rides.

On 07 April 2004 (09:21 AM), J.D. said:

Not that you'll be able to see it with the way the text on this page has slid to the left in IE6/Win, but here's the final draft of my story:


He rises at five a.m. to milk the cows. His granddaughter is waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs wearing a pretty pink dress. "Well, come on then," he says. He picks up two pails and hands one to her. She struggles to carry it; he does not offer to help.

The ground is frosty. The sky is clear and black. Stars twinkle white and blue and red.

They milk the cows. He milks the cows. She watches. Her attention drifts to the sow bugs beneath the floorboards, to the riding tackle on the walls, to the shovels and pitchforks in the corner. Squeeze squeeze and the milk shlups into the pail, steaming. His granddaughter climbs onto the trough.

"Come over here," he says, and she does. She sulks. The cow switches its tail.

"Don't touch her tail," he says. Squeeze squeeze and the milk shlups into the pail. Squeeze squeeze.

The cow squeals and bolts. He falls to the ground. He stands to find his granddaughter lying in the gutter, covered in shit. Her pink dress is covered in shit. "My word," he says.

"I told you not to touch her tail," he says. He lifts his granddaughter by one arm. Holding her aloft, he grabs the full pail of milk, and then carries them both to the spigot. She whimpers.

"Stop your fussing," he says. He removes her dress. He turns on the hose. "Stand still," he says, and she does. He washes the shit from her tiny body. She shivers, but she does not cry. When she is clean, he removes his woolen shirt and wraps it around her.

He lifts his granddaughter and the pail of milk, and he carries them both to breakfast. An icy breeze brushes his bare back.

His wife looks at him, looks at his granddaughter, then frowns and shakes her head. "She was a good helper this morning," he says, and he sits down to drink his coffee.

He smiles the rest of the day.

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