Twenty Words

As I grind through The Novel, with thousands of words behind me and just a few thousand more ahead, I am aching to write short fiction again. There is such challenge and satisfaction in crafting a complete story, with fully formed characters facing obstacles and arriving at some sort of resolution, in fewer than 10,000 or 5,000 or 1,000 words. Excuse the running metaphor, but short fiction is a speed workout that leaves you trembling with endorphins, legs wobbly from those fast-twitch muscle fibers that fired you through quarter-mile repeats instead of the measured slog of a long-distance run.

The fast-twitch fibers in my brain were reawakened during the workshop I attended yesterday during the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference: Flash nonfiction: Writing Memoir in 750 words or less led by the delightful Sayantani Dasgupta, a writer and a professor in the Department of English at the University of Idaho (Side Note for Grammar Geeks Fewer vs. Less – I’m straddling the fence here. Since we’re discussing word count, I’m sticking with fewer than, but I’m open to being persuaded in the direction of less if you can make a compelling “bulk” case. Oh my goodness, I heart Grammar!).

I am preparing myself for the emptiness I will feel when The Novel is complete. Not finished, mind you – months of revisions and multiple drafts undulate like an ocean before me; I’m already a little queasy at the thought – but the characters will have done their work and will either walk away forever or lie down to rest until their time comes ’round again. I’m braced for the “Now, what do I do?” feeling that will hit about the time the year turns away from autumn and hunches its head to the oncoming winter. So, I let my mind wander away from the Languedoc just a bit and feel around for new ideas. I return to jotting down those snippets of my life or overheard bits of others’ that become fodder for new tales to tell. My autumn/winter goal, to break up the tedium of editing editing editing, will be to complete several pieces – from flash to shorts and whatever is between.

In short fiction, each word carries great significance. This is true of all writing, of course, but there is the luxury of development and backstory in long form prose. Flash fiction in particular is a kissing cousin to poetry. Each word pops, stings, zings, shocks, compels, evokes, hearkens. There is a rhythm – a poetic flow – but also a tightness to the structure that makes it a complete art form, distinct, difficult and powerful.

To get us thinking about the power of words, Ms. Desgupta presented this writing prompt during yesterday’s workshop:

What if you were only allowed to use twenty words for the rest of your life? List these twenty words. How will you write a story of your life so far and of your vision of the future by weaving in and out of these twenty words?

In my tendency to overanalyze even the simplest of exercises, I wanted to make certain my words could convey multiple feelings, needs, desires, and experiences. These four came immediately to mind:

  • earth
  • fire
  • water
  • air

Then I thought of the things I do that make up the who I am:

  • write
  • run
  • read
  • wander

What I value most spilled out:

  • marriage
  • health
  • peace
  • present

Random things I cannot live without:

  • coffee
  • wine
  • vision (another one of those multiple meaning words, but suffice to say I’m epically near-sighted)
  • home

Words I would not want to give up, even though I could convey their meaning by pointing my finger:

  • I
  • You

And it struck me that I included these two words:

  • Fear
  • Fuck (this one appeared on several lists; I think we all need one good curse in our arsenal. This covers so much ground in four letters: perfection)

But I didn’t include Love. I reckon love is implicit in words 1 -18. 19 & 20, too, really.

Can I write the story of my life using only twenty words? I think I just did.

Which twenty words would tell the story of your life?

How many of my 20 words can you find in this photo? Chinese Gardens, Ft. Worden State Park © 2013 Julie Christine
How many of my 20 words can you find in this photo? Chinese Gardens, Ft. Worden State Park © 2013 Julie Christine

14 thoughts on “Twenty Words

  1. Ah Julie, I have been wondering how your novel has been coming along. Thanks for the update! Gosh I can’t wait to read it; to languish in the perfection of your writing for an entire novel sounds like sheer bliss! Thanks for the writing prompt…something to mull over for a while. Some people like to choose one word to symbolize the year ahead and what it might hold for them on New Year’s Eve. You, on the other hand, have asked us to choose just 20 words to stand for a life! 🙂

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  2. Twenty words only – I feel like I can’t breathe! Will have to think about that. Yes No C’mere and Go’way come to mind. I cheated, I know. I am very happy for you that you are so close to finishing your novel. One of many, I’m sure.

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    1. Oh goodness. I attended a lecture on the Art of Revision on Tuesday. The speaker, author Ann Hood, revealed she went through 35 revisions of a novel before she turned it over to her editor.

      I have so much work to do. I think writing this first draft will end up being the easiest part. Miles to go, and all that… But interludes like this conference give me the determination to go on.

      Today is my final day at day job… And so it begins…

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    1. It’s been a great week so far, Tom. I didn’t make it into the Master Class after all – third on the waiting list – so I’m attending the afternoon lectures and workshops only. In some ways, it’s a relief. I can get the lay of the land and be ready to jump into deep water next year. After just a few hours of workshops, my brain is already so full of ideas, motivation, and that mix of despair and determination. It’s enough!

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