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

Crossing borders

I learned of Richard Hugo House last year while scouting out writing classes. The catalog of workshops and seminars made me weak in the knees with desire, but I was far too intimidated to pursue even the most fundamental. These are programs for real writers; those who come with manuscripts bursting from their hard drives, with poems filling tattered notebooks, with screenplays spilling from their bike bags. These are serious classes, with enigmatic titles like “Fleshing It Out: Breathing Life Into Our Fragments” and “Ain’t Look Right, That There: Stories in Odd Shapes”; Master Classes in poetry and prose; classes to help fine tune plots, characters, and dialogue; classes on finding an agent and a publisher once your manuscript is burning in your hands.

I was just hoping for some guidance and inspiration to move beyond “It was a dark and stormy night.”

At the end of the summer, I scrolled through the online Fall quarter catalog  and espied an afternoon workshop on travel writing. I thought, “Okay, my passport’s been around the world, maybe I wouldn’t embarrass myself too badly.” I made a mental note to think about registering.

Some brain worm awoke earlier this week and nudged my selective memory. I was certain the class I had chosen to forget about had already taken place or was full. But no, the class was three days away, Richard Hugo House was happy to take my late registration, and there was time enough for the instructor to send me an e-mail of what to bring and how to prepare. Oh God. I have to prepare? Oh well, it’s only an afternoon –  I can suffer anything for a few hours. I enrolled.

The instructor’s instructions were simple: bring a few mementos, such as photos, postcards, art objects, money,  and maps to use as memory triggers and writing prompts. I chose a Pāua shell from New Zealand, a rice paper parasol from Kyoto, a necklace with a Celtic pendant from Ireland, a portfolio that held a series of woodblock prints of Chambèry, and a CFA franc note from Chad.

Then it occurred to me. I haven’t traveled all that much. I’ve lived abroad, in extraordinary places, but I’ve never Eurailed through thirty-seven countries in three weeks, I’ve never bicycled in Southeast Asia or gone on safari in the Serengeti. I’ve never been to Disneyworld or the Yucatán, I haven’t touched the Great Wall of China or seen Old Faithful spew. I haven’t labored up the steps of Machu Picchu or cruised Norwegian fjords. And this was a class on writing for travel publications. What was I thinking?

There were ten of us in the class. One woman spent seven years with her husband sailing around the world. The pierced and tattooed Millenial next to me had just returned from two years in Lima where he worked at a kick-boxing studio. A recent retiree dressed entirely in purple intended to write about painting workshops in Greece.  A thin, elegant social anthropologist was writing a memoir of her experiences in East Africa in the 70’s. A handful had taken writing classes; others, like me, were complete novices. We held pens to blank paper, hands trembling in anticipation.

Sandwiched in-between brief explanations by the instructor and a bit of group discussion was the meat of the workshop:  a series of directed, timed writing prompts. Then we read our words aloud. I guess I had realized that sharing was a part of writing workshops, but after our first writing exercise when the instructor asked us each to read what we had written, my stomach dropped and my face flamed hot. Suddenly the afternoon loomed long and dark. I braced myself, breathed deeply and  thought – “It’s okay, I never have to see these people again.”

Round-the-World Sailor was first to go. She was the only one who brought technology greater than a ballpoint and sheets of 8.5×11. She tapped away at her HP Notebook through the instructor’s entire introductory remarks, then admitted that she had spent the first writing exercise working on a scene for some unrelated project. Right. Well. I guess it’s your money, you can spend your time any way you choose. She never did read any of her work aloud.

And so we went on. Six writing prompts in all; four of these became the beginning, middle, middle-end and end of a complete piece. Some people read aloud once or twice, then remained silent in the remaining hours. Others plowed on with emotion or humor, and all with an amazing ability to create vivid settings, characters, tension, emotion and resolution in five to fifteen minute writing slams. I read each of my segments aloud, my heart slamming, my face pounding with heat, my voice stumbling through the words I had scribbled on the page with a hand squeezed around my pen, cramped in an unfamiliar pose. No one laughed at me.  I saw a few heads nod in encouragement and agreement as I read. The instructor congratulated me on first describing a character by their hiking boots and the sound of their voice, not with the usual hair color and body build; she pointed out some stylistic choices I made that took the narrative in an unexpected direction (I did? Uh, do I let on that I was totally unaware of making any choices? I was just writing as fast as my Pilot Pen would go).

At one point, when the instructor told us to finish the sentence we were on and set down our pens, I realized I had lost myself on the page. It was like losing myself in a run – the point when you stop thinking about running, about the miles ahead of you, about the pain in your hip – everything slips away and you become running machine. And I was writing like a runner – I was gone into my words, into my heart, I didn’t want to stop.

I’m suddenly crying as I recall this moment of pure writing abandon. How often are we ever completely of and in a moment, doing exactly what it is that we are meant to do? How much of our lives do we waste pushing away our dreams because we fear the failure of our own possibility, because we can’t afford the luxury – the time, the money, the neglect of responsibilities to family, job, community – of answering our questioning hearts? For a moment, just a moment, I was there. I touched the possibility.

It struck me that no one was at this workshop to write an article for Condé Nast Traveler about the best hotels on the Adriatic coast or the newest yoga and wine spas in Napa or skiing holidays in the Atlas Mountains. We all had personal journeys to share, emotional borders that we crossed during our travels, an aching need to illuminate our scrapbooks with the light of our words. One woman related the story of traveling to Korea to meet her adopted daughter. Her description of the foster mother’s last moments with the baby had several of us wiping away tears. The retiree in purple used humor to describe her deep disappointment in accepting that she would never be the painter she dreamed.

I wrote about a trip to Germany Brendan and I took in the early years of our marriage, when we were struggling to find our way as individuals and learning how to be partners. We traveled to Bavaria to visit René and Marie-Thérèse, the brother-in-law and sister of the family Brendan had lived with in France before we met.

René and Marie-Thérèse met at the end of World War II. He was an 18-year old German prisoner of war assigned to work at her father’s estate in western France. She fell in love with his hands – his long, tapered fingers and trim, clean nails. They waited ten years to marry, when the scandal of a French girl marrying a German soldier would be softened by the forgiveness of time and the growing Western European solidarity against Communism. She moved to Germany, not speaking a word of the language, and lived with his parents in a small village deep in the Bavarian Alps while he set up his design business in Munich. Grasping the enormity of their story, told over the course of dinners that stretched for hours into the summer twilight, was like a balm on the growing pains of our young marriage. The trip became the honeymoon we hadn’t yet taken.

The story of René and Marie-Thérèse’s extraordinary marriage has been a small seed in my heart for many years. After yesterday’s workshop, I feel it starting to grow.

Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

There is an art to consuming a cup of coffee, particularly if it is the first of the day, when your sleep-fuzzed brain and sluggish muscles yearn for the rush of caffeine. Drink it too quickly, you will burn your tongue and throat and negate the pleasure of its rich warmth curling thickly through your blood. Drink it too slowly and it will cool to a flaccid, bitter memory of what coffee could be.

Reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is like consuming that first, vital coffee of the day (I dedicate my very terrible simile to the Dutch, who created the modern stock market, based on the coffee trade in the century before the setting of this novel). If you rush headlong into the adventure, looking for the jolt of plot twists and intrigue, you will miss the nuances of tone and color that ripple through Mitchell’s narrative as the points of view and settings change. If you go too slowly, you will lose the heat of the mystery and its complicated cast of characters. But by reading carefully and allowing Mitchell’s pacing to steady the hand that is trembling for its narrative fix, you will emerge deeply satisfied.

If you have read any professional reviews of this book, you have been pounded over the head by the reminder that Mitchell has written a straight-on historical fiction. As if it wasn’t evident in Mitchell’s previous works that he is a master of historical details of language, tone, setting and weaving fact through his fantasy. In this instance, he lands us in Nagasaki Harbor alongside Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutch clerk seeking his fortune as a member of the Dutch East Indies Company. As the 18th century comes to an end, Japan is still a nation of samurai and daimyo, determined to remain closed to foreigners. The Dutch outpost of Dejima, an artificial island in the port of Nagasaki, is the one remaining Western foothold in this land of mist and shadows.

That is the initial setting of the story. Where Mitchell takes you I won’t reveal- you’ve got to invest the time and energy into your own exploration. But read as carefully as the author has written. There is exquisite language that is a luxury to read and there are detours that frustrate until you realize you are happily lost and willing to stay the course because you trust the roads will all meet up again.

There is a secret delight at the start of a certain chapter in the final pages of the books that will have you weak with wonder at the magic of words.

I may return to give this a final, fifth star. I considered early in the novel that I was continuing on only because it was David Mitchell- there is some clunkiness that made me drag my heels and even set it aside for a couple of days. But as I continued to read, I realized I had to set aside my tendency to devour instead of savor. In the end, it was good to the last drop.

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