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

The Apprentice

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”—Ernest Hemingway

Word came during my last days in Seattle, when I was living out of a suitcase and tripping over rolls of paper towels and a growing pile of jetsam destined for Goodwill. After the initial indulgent Facebook “Guess What?! Squee!” post, I filed the warm glow. I didn’t have the emotional reserves to consider what the letter really meant. What it could mean. And how much it really hurt to say, “No. I can’t accept.”

So, I didn’t. Consider it, that is. I got through that final, wretched week, made the final, back-breaking part of the move, started one job, then another. I tumbled headlong for my funky little ville –  its sea breezes and sunrises over Mount Baker; the deer wandering on beaches, porpoises weaving in the bay, eagles floating just above Doug firs; those fine Friday nights sitting outside the Pourhouse, watching tipsy bocce ball matches and dogs chasing seagulls; walking my brief commute instead of timing a drive to avoid the inevitable Seattle snarls. In a few short weeks, it seemed as if I’d left the old life in the dust, with nary a glance in the rearview mirror.

Then the follow-up e-mail came. “We want you. We haven’t heard from you. Will you come?”

I recounted here the night in November when I battled rain, the nasty Mapquest Wench and my night-driving terrors to walk unfashionably late into an info session about a local university’s MFA in Creative Writing.

I wrote my personal essay. I cringed over my sample piece of writing. I fretted about the letters of recommendation, wondering if faculty from my Masters degree would remember me, nearly twenty years on (Lord, it’s happened. I’m middle-aged. It’s no longer “Oh, my 20th high school reunion is next year; it’s “I completed a Masters degree. Twenty years ago.).

But I got the darn thing in. Eleventh hour. End of January. My first – my only – MFA application.

I had it all planned out, in the unlikely event I was accepted. I’d cut back to three days of work during the academic terms. The tuition was shocking, but we’d just paid off the car. Spread out over two years, the tuition and fees could be easily managed, no need for a loan, Bob’s your uncle.

Then things got messy. Crappy, really. We decided it was time to go.

And they decided to admit me. With a scholarship.

There’s really no use in trying to make sense of why things happen the way they do. I stared at that letter, sitting between the rubble of an old life and hopes for the  new one. I may have laughed. I know I cried. I think I heard in the distance Blind Boy Fuller crooning and finger-picking, “I Got the First World Blues.”

I hoped someone would make the decision for me. Or that a shining light would beam down and show me the way to “Here’s What You Should Do.”

There was grace in the form of a deferment. Of all people, I know how life can change in a year’s time. Or in ten minutes.

Acceptance into a Creative Writing MFA program felt like finding the Golden Ticket in a Willy Wonka chocolate bar. I’d get to see the inside of that mysterious house on the hill. I’d be an invited guest, learn all the secrets and emerge a changed writer. A real writer. Right?


About a mile from my house is Fort Worden State Park. If the film An Officer and a Gentleman appears in your pop culture lexicon, then you’ve seen Fort Worden. As well as the Port Townsend Paper Mill. And the inside of Room 10 at the Tides Motel. I’ve stayed in that room. Don’t you. Trust me on this one.

The Tides Motel: Room 10
The Tides Motel: Room 10

Fort Worden – besides being a sublime place to run, to picnic, beachcomb, catch some astonishing views – is home to many arts and crafts endeavors, including Copper Canyon Press and the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. It also houses Centrum, one of the Pacific Northwest’s premier arts organizations. Centrum’s Jazz and Blues, Fiddle and Chamber Music festivals are world-renowned, as are its dance programs. Were I an artist afloat, I’d sure as heck want to land a residency there. It is the temple around which this Mecca for creative souls is built. At least I already live here. Which is so very near to there.

And for two weeks each summer, Centrum hosts the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. You can opt to spend your mornings in a Master Class with a Famous Writer or Poet and afternoons attending your choice of workshops; or you can attend the afternoon workshops only. Lunch and evening lectures are free. One week or two, depending upon your budget. And your courage.

Of course I planned on signing up for the conference. I can WALK there, for Pete’s sake.

But I kept putting it off. The folder sat on my desk for weeks. I started then cancelled my on-line registration twice. Not because of the money. Or the dodgy state of the job. Or thoughts that I should be busy finding another (pretty much worked through that one. “No” is the approach du jour). I couldn’t decide if I wanted to do a morning Master Class and if I did, which one? With Famous Author or the guy I hadn’t heard of? Or maybe not Master Class, but just the afternoon workshops? One or two weeks of afternoons only? Or one full week with Master Class and afternoons? Or?

I’m not an indecisive person. I brook no dithering. So, what’s the problem here, Julie? Sign up, already.

I realized by clicking “Confirm” on the registration form, I was making a statement about myself, identifying myself as a writer in a forum populated by published authors, some of whom make a living with their scribbles. I’d be expected, you know, to write. Intimidation and insecurity kept my finger hovering, wavering and finally, withdrawing from that final click.

But hey, wait. I’m published! Somebody wanted me badly enough for their MFA program, they offered me what funding they could. And neither one of those has anything to do with being a writer. The only rules, qualifications, expectations are those I’d saddled myself with.

I hit “Confirm” yesterday.

Much to my relief disappointment expectation, my dithering netted me a spot on the Wait List for Master Class with Famous Writer. I’m Lucky Wait List Contestant #3. Not so bad, really. And if a spot doesn’t open up, well then. It’s two weeks of afternoon workshops for me.

Of course I’m going. It’s what I came here to do.

View from Fort Worden, Port Townsend, WA

Next year will be what it will. Next month is spoken for.











PS I’m trying out this new contact form thing. I’m not sure why or how it’s different than “Leave A Reply” Let’s see what happens…