The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

69 Words

with 4 comments

I just finished the first week of a two-week summer writing workshop at Northeastern Illinois University. We have spent a lot of time talking about constraints we would for whatever reason put on our writing, and experimenting with different constraints. It seemed to me at first that constraints would be counter-productive– why would you limit yourself? Isn’t keeping the faucet wide open the best way to let your writing emerge? But constraints are common, and writers automatically put one on themselves from the moment they start writing: From what point of view will I tell this story? Other constraints emerge along the way, such as how much of this scene am I going to show? what is the setting of the story (which, as it turns out, is a massive constraint)? If you submit a lot of writing to journals, they usually put a constraint on you in terms of how much of your writing they’ll accept.

It didn’t take me too long to understand that many times it is the constraint that acts as the agitant in the oyster’s membrane.

One of our homework options a few nights ago involved what is a significant constraint for a prose writer. It was to write a story using 69 words EXACTLY. I’ve seen writing prompts like this before, and I know of many writing contests that have challenged writers in a similar way, but I never tried it. I set myself to the task, and spent about two hours cranking out ten drafts of my story. I had it down to 88 words by the third draft, which helped quite a bit. About halfway through the exercise, I felt a wave of gratitude crash over me for having practiced so much poetry writing over the last seven years. As I edited and rewrote, and edited and rewrote, and edited and rewrote (for chrissakes, it was only 69 words… it’s a fast rewrite!), it felt a lot like I was writing a poem. I tried to focus on a few symbols and have them bat cleanup, all while setting up for a substantive punchline. I’m not sure how well I accomplished all of that, but here’s what I came up with:

Par by Jeff Burd

The slender blonde lady across the counter tapped the glass and asked Why can’t you carry better balls than those? I’m sorry, ma’am, you apologized, the same way you apologize to her six days a week. You suggested she speak to the club manager, but you know that people like her will never be satisfied–the same way you know that glass counter will always separate you from them.

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Written by seeker70

July 7, 2012 at 11:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. “It didn’t take me too long to understand that many times it is the constraint that acts as the agitant in the oyster’s membrane.” Love this post! Shared it on facebook. 🙂

    Pam Parker

    July 7, 2012 at 12:11 pm

  2. Nice job! I find writing short is so hard. I tend to prefer to write narrative news stories & to get any real color in the story when you have to “write tight” for space constraints is really hard. A writing coach from the Poynter Institute once led a seminar for the newsroom about how to do it well and led by having us listen to Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Gun to Town.” Great story-telling with very few words when you take into account the chorus repeats. Check it out: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnnycash/donttakeyourgunstotown.html

    Lauri Keagle

    July 7, 2012 at 7:19 pm

  3. I know a few Hollywood writers who could really use this workshop. Can you imagine “Michael Clayton” told in 69 words? It might’ve been good!

    Stranger Danger

    July 10, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    • oh-no-u-dint! Michael Clayton was a damn fine film! It garned lots of praise, especially from the Academy.

      seeker70

      July 10, 2012 at 10:39 pm


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