Six-Word Memoirs

The novelist Ernest Hemingway was once asked to create a full story in six words or less.  Here is what he wrote:  “For Sale:  baby shoes, never worn.”

Last year, the online magazine Smith asked readers to take up the same challenge and write the story of their own lives in a single, six-word sentence.  The result was the book, Not Quite What I Was Planning.  Here are some submissions the magazine received:

     Revenge is living well, without you.  – Joyce Carol Oats

     Well, I thought it was funny.  – Stephen Colbert

     After Harvard, had baby with crackhead.  – Robin Templeton

     70 years, few tears, hairy ears.  – Bill Querengesser

     Catholic school backfired.  Sin is in!  – Nikki Beland

     She said she was negative.  Damn.  – Ryan McRae

     I asked.  They answered.  I wrote.  – Sebastian Junger

     Joined Army.  Came out.  Got booted.  – Johan Baumeister

     Almost a victim of my family.  – Chuck Sangster

     The psychic said I’d be richer.  – Elizabeth Bernstein

     Mom died, Dad screwed us over.  – Lesley Kysely

     Painful nerd kid, happy nerd adult.  – Linda Williamson

     Slapped by a nurse;  still sore.  -Matt Mather

After looking at these examples, I decided to write some six-word memoirs of my own.  Here’s what I came up with:

      “Hidden strife.  Unfaithful wife.  New life.” 

      “I taught them what I know.”   

      “English mom.  Irish dad.  Didn’t last.”

      “I thought I knew.  Not anymore.”

Now it’s your turn.  Come on, give it a try!

Self Help?

“Cut off my hands, I’ll use my feet. Cut off my feet, I’ll use my teeth. Cut off my head, and I will haunt you.”—Me

This was my response when I found out the M&O Override for the school district in which I teach did not pass. It also has become one my life’s mottos. The idea itself has a rather obscure beginning in my life. I guess, looking back, I was always a pessimist.

Most eight-year-olds are happy to ride their Big Wheels, climb trees, and play stick ball (at least that is what we did before video games were invented). For some reason, when I was eight years old it occurred to me that I might someday lose a limb. Maybe I caught a glimpse of some movie my parents were watching that involved a character missing appendages. Perhaps one Sunday night, while that infernal time piece ticked down the seconds until bedtime via 60 Minutes, I caught sight of a Morley Safer piece on severed limbs. I honestly don’t know where I got the idea, but it bothered me.

Being right-handed I started to wonder how I would write or draw if I lost that hand. Naturally, I began practicing using my left hand. I spent unmentionable hours practicing writing my name. I tried print and cursive both until I could write my name legibly (barely). Whew! I was covered. Or so I thought.

Then one day it dawned on me that if I could lose one hand, I could very well lose both. This threw me into fits for a time until I decided that maybe, just maybe, with lots of practice, I could write with my toes. Thus began several hours of my practicing writing with my toes using pen, using pencils, and even the occasional crayon.

You can imagine where it went from there. What if I lose my feet? For days then I practiced writing with my teeth. But what if I lost my teeth? Then gums would work I guess. Eventually I got to the point where I concerned myself with decapitation and decided that if that happened I probably wouldn’t be doing much writing anyway. As a ghost, however, it might be nice to haunt someone…especially anyone who was responsible for the loss of one of my body parts.

Put aside the question as to why an eight year old would concern herself with such things. Why do eight-year-olds concern themselves with anything? The bottom line is that it taught me a couple of things: One, with practice I can do just about anything I set my mind to. Two, once I get an idea in my head I need to see it through to the end. Three, the whole experience is a good metaphor for life and the idea that one must never give up no matter what. Four, I probably should have been in counseling from an early age.

So I guess this is how life mottos are made…at least mine. And I have to say that the idea has played a part at several times in my life.

Active Rest

Active rest is a fitness term.  When most people work out they do a set of exercises then rest before doing another set.  For a good number of people that means more time is spent standing around resting than exercising.  When one of these people starts to work with a good trainer they are often distraught when the trainer cuts their rest time drastically or even gives them no rest at all.  Maybe lunges for a minute followed immediately by push-ups for a minute then a set of fifteen barbell curls.  In this example the curls would be active rest; you’re working at a lighter intensity than the main routine and so your ‘rest’ periods are actually getting some work done.

So what?  I’d been working on a long project (a novel) and progress, which had been pretty steady, was slowing down.  It’s not writer’s block it’s more like fatigue.  Word counts went down, harder to really get that ‘flow’ of a good session, and just general malaise. 

A fellow writer suggested that maybe it was just time to take a break, put it in the drawer.  Good advice probably but advice I didn’t really want to take because the end just felt so close.  Another few slog sessions made it pretty obvious a rest was needed but you don’t want to just abandon it.  You want to keep up the writing habit and that’s where active rest comes in.  There’s plenty of stuff you can do to stay in the writing mindset without necessarily doing the heavy lifting.

Writing exercises.  These exercises are rarely fully formed stories but they have value.  Especially if you work on something specific.  If you have problems with dialog work on that.  Write a piece that’s nothing but dialog.  Two people talking with no dialog attribution at all.  Try to create the characters and tell the story with nothing but those lines of dialog.

Back-story.  I play Dungeons & Dragons.  I know, awesome, right?  Our DM just had us write back-stories for our characters and, you know, it was pretty fun.  You should probably already have back-stories for your main characters but what about smaller characters?  A little work on back-story might make ’em pop a little and keep you engaged in the work while easing off the hard stuff.

Old business.  If you have some pieces laying around, say a first draft of a short story or one of those word exercises you did and then forgot about; pull ’em out and take a look.  Some of it will suck, no doubt, but there might be some gems.  Maybe something that needs just a little attention.  I put a quick polish on an old short story and submitted it to a contest.  I didn’t win but sometimes just freakin finishing something feels good.

The main thing is you’re still writing.  Keep up the habits and you can cut yourself a little slack for ignoring the ‘big work’.  Just don’t let ‘active rest’ turn into a year of two-page vignettes.  In fitness they say “growth happens outside the gym” but that’s assuming you were in the gym at some point.  Eventually you’re gonna have to get back to work.

One Page Exercise: Grind

Saliva gathered in silky strings and pooled in the plastic basin of the mouth-guard he wore to sleep at night. For years now he had been grinding his teeth as he slept. All those years all that grinding. His teeth were down to nubs and he didn’t even know the true cause of it.

At night, after the thrashing amidst heavy bedding stopped he was aware only of darkness. Everybody dreams his psychiatrist insisted. You just don’t remember them. It is perfectly normal. Tell that to his worn down chiclet teeth and mangled tongue. It had gotten so bad over the years that his speech patterns changed to the point that he rarely spoke at all anymore.

He had ditched the psychiatrist but kept the mouth guard. The medication, while a colorful array to look at, and sort into piles sat in tinted pill bottles scattered about his dark, musty bedroom. Tonight he lay there in bed. Awake. Waiting for the moment when his saliva would spill over the walls of the guard and threaten to choke him. A bizarre form of water-torture. He craved the darkness of sleep so his mind could rest. It wasn’t stress exactly, he couldn’t put his finger on it. While he craved the darkness he dreaded awakening in the early hours to spit out the saliva and blood that gathered in his guard. If only he could put his finger on why he ground his teeth all night. He had quite literally gotten rid of every potential conduit of stress in his life; quit his job, took care of his silly girlfriend, sent his small, yipping dog to the pound. And still. No rest. Only darkness and blood and spit all night long.

He rolled over in bed kicking at the mess of sheets and blankets trying to achieve some level of comfort. His spittle splashed and ebbed in the mouth guard and some drained into his throat. He gagged and spat and thrashed; an unsettling dance. The frustration so great he cried out loudly. It felt so good between coughing fits, he drew in a great breath to cry out again. His plastic mouth guard floated on a sea of spit the aft turning toward its throaty purpose. Suddenly, on the inhale it slipped easily into position. All crying out ceased as the airway closed around the device forming a seal. He tried breathing through his nose but was unable to focus in his panic. Slowly, his face turned the color of his pills, yellow-green, red, blue, and purple and the darkness was complete.

creative writing exercise – one sin

A few weeks ago, Eric posted about a writing exercise in which you only use single syllable words.  I decided to give it a try, but first I had to come up with a title to work from.  I cleared my mind, set forth the constraint that it was to be a phrase consisting of single syllable words (might as well start off on the right foot) and took the first thing that popped in, which happened to be “one sin”.  Now, it is entirely possible that my subconscious was instead trying to convey the phrase “once in”, but I think “one sin” has more potential.  So, without further ado, it’s time to get all monosyllabic.

“One Sin”

Once in the church, I found the priest with a frayed frock tied much too tight ’round his neck.  I thought that I might just back out the way that I had come in, but some other soul who had come in from the cold blocked the door.  Her hand flew to make the sign of the cross as she weighed the scene in front of her.  She must have seen too much of the type of show where the perp hung out and got caught, since she eyed me with a tinge of fear.  I tried to speak, but found no words could be coaxed from my throat while my lips pursed and then gave part, all with no sound.  By the look in her eye, this was not what she would need for us to get past this point.  “Not me,” I croaked with a whisp of drawn breath, while she paused to stare at the floor.

When her eyes once more were raised, she spoke, each word forced like a great weight from deep in her chest.  “One sin, that was all I came back to make up for,” she said.  “And now,” she said as she crossed the floor with new found drive, so fast that I could not move, “I have to live with one more.”