Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Six words? Short attention span literature.

One of the warm-up exercises at the flash fiction workshop I went to last year was to write a six-word short story, inspired by Wired Magazine’s Very Short Stories  invitational, which, in turn, had been inspired by Hemingway’s famous six-word story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

I dutifully wrote a few short shorts, none of which I read aloud, and didn’t think about writing any more after that. (You’ll see why, after looking at the following samples—the best of the bunch I did that day):
This door leads to nowhere. Go.
“I’m pregnant.” She exhaled smoke. “Damn!”
Mostly this exercise confirmed for me that I am not an aphoristic kind of writer. I’m still Southern, at heart—when I have a chance to talk or write, I want to take my own sweet time about it.

Then, at a weekend women’s retreat I went to in March, we were told to write our life stories in six words. This time, we were asked to share them aloud, and terse tales poured out of most of the women there. Half-heartedly I tried to talk about my life concisely, but once pen hit paper, it wanted to keep going. Many of my six-word efforts complained about only having six words to express myself in, e.g., “Hard to compress in six words” and “I hate being my own editor.”(The only good thing I wrote, maybe, was: "Don't waste your time on jerks.") Meanwhile, some of the women were so inspired by the exercise they wrote multiple passages that they then decorated and scrapbooked.

Now Newsweek magazine has taken up the effort. In its new, redesigned format, which hit newsstands last week, its letter page features a box at the bottom that says “IN SIX WORDS.” Last week’s topic: “Your thoughts on swine flu.” (At the bottom of the box, it says “Inspired by SMITH Magazine’s Six-Word Memoir Project.”).

My worry for writers is that if we give into too much succinct expression, it might stifle our ability to write broad, elegant, luxurious prose—that we'll, in effect, Tweet away our talent if we express every thought, at any moment, in bite-size pieces. My other worry is that readers will grow used to ingesting small spoonfuls of prose, unable to stick with anything beyond a computer screen, or worse, status line or cellphone screen.

Of course, it's ironic that I'm expressing this dismay in a blog posting that will run without continuation on a computer screen, and that I don't often read long books or even long essays anymore, drawn as I am to the life bubbling up in my own household, to the lives of my friends expressed in "What's on your mind?" Facebook updates. But at least, I console myself, it took 469 words to reach this ironic conclusion.

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