Saturday, February 09, 2008

The hard is what makes it

One of my favorite things about life is developing creative resolutions to apparent paradoxes. Working with teen writers at L.A. Youth, I find they're often intimidated when told that our minimum story length is approximately 1,000 words—most have not been asked to write more than 500-600 word essays, which require thinking, in their English classes. The longer research papers are usually mere regurgitations of encyclopedia/Internet entries.
Yet all the editors quietly smile to ourselves as the new teen writers shudder at the prospect of coming up with enough stuff to fill about two typed pages in Word; not because we're sadists, but because we know that in a few drafts they're going to be feeling sick at the idea of getting to save at-most only 2,000 words from their eight- or nine-page (about 4,000 words) draft. OK, maybe slight sadists?

Bleeding heart liberal that I am, I usually resort to a gun metaphor to help them understand the process. I tell the writers that writing a 2,000-word-max article is like going into battle with a six-shooter, while writing a novel is like going into battle with a machine gun. The person with fewer words has to make every word count, because that writer won't get a second (or seventh) shot. Every bullet/paragraph has to be a killshot and hit its target. Usually they "get it" and realize that the apparent paradox that it actually takes less effort and time to write a longer piece, is in fact not a paradox at all. When one doesn't have to choose between favorite phrases/babies and re-write sentences so that every word drips with power, it's faster.

For years writers have wrestled with this challenge.

Samuel Clemens is quoted to have said this about brevity in writing: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."

I also love the example of the over-worded sign at an oceanside fishmarket that reads "Fresh Fish Sold Here." Fish sold next to the ocean it was caught in will be FRESH. If they're not for sale then what the hell is this place? So obviously they're being SOLD. And if the market is next to the water and the sign says fish, it's more than obvious that's HERE. So how about a sign that reads simply: "Fish."

But this one, though possibly apocryphal, is my favorite. The re-telling is borrowed from NPR's lead to one of the most amazing challenges I've heard about in a while.

Once asked to write a full story in six words, legend has it that novelist Ernest Hemingway responded: "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Smith magazine, an online publication, has challenged people to write their memoirs in SIX words. This vexing, creative, revealing, maddening and fun endeavour has attracted the attention of NPR, Entertainment Weekly and the editors wrote an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times.

And like with yesterday's post about the harms of soy- or corn-based ethanol, one of my (former) students found this before I could pass it to her. Of course she asked what mine would be ... and I was stumped. I stalled by asking hers. A second-quarter senior at Stanford, Steph wrote: "Dreaming of great things for later."


I came up with: "Sought future in California, found self."

When I moved out here I was planning to establish residency so I could attend law school at the far cheaper California resident cost. I planned eventually to work for the United Nations or Amnesty International doing human rights work. Instead, I'm teaching students how to write and helping them get published in the country's largest independent teen newspaper—amazingly enough not that far off from my chosen high school career of working with gifted students.

The editors at Smith have published a book titled Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure.

According to the website, the book "collects almost 1,000 six-word memoirs, including additions from many celebrities including Stephen Colbert, Jane Goodall, Dave Eggers, and more.

"Surprisingly addictive, Not Quite is both a moving peek at the minutia of humanity and the most literary toilet reading you’ll ever find."

Here are a few ...

Mom died, Dad screwed us over.
- Lesley Kysely

Painful nerd kid, happy nerd adult.
- Linda Williamson

Write about sex, learn about love.
- Martha Garvey

Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends.

I still make coffee for two.

I like big butts, can’t lie.

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