In my writing class today, we talked about not simply the “need” to be succinct in descriptions and, well, most prose, but the beauty as well. I reminded them we’ve all heard songs that say exactly what we feel but could never express.
They knew what I meant.
So I had them write about one feeling. “You’re in a small town, high school age, maybe a bit older, no jobs to be found, no future, but it’s where you’re from. Factories closing, and all you do is hang out on street corners or someone’s garage drinking. How do you feel? Do this in less than 100 words.”
The responses an hour later were decent, but only because we all knew what everybody else meant from discussions. “Good writing like good music doesn’t come with the artist to “explain” themselves,” I said and we laughed.
I mocked, “Hello, Professor Kunzinger, I just finished your book about Siberia, can you come here and explain everything you meant so we’re on the same page?”
With a little prodding, a few students read their work. One talked about being able to predict the next twenty years nearly hour by hour. I liked that idea. Another used a string of drowning similes.
I wrote this on the board:
“It’s a deathtrap. It’s a suicide rap. We’ve got to get out while we’re young.”
Fifteen words. “Fifteen words! And Springsteen nails it.”
Do that, I told them, and you’ll get an A.
I gave more examples from Seibles to Frost to Dylan to Dylan Thomas. A.E. Housman. Gwendolyn Brooks.
I went for a walk afterwards, trying to shake “Born to Run.”
A friend of mine called and we talked about life and food and weather and hair. Then she told me her daughter-in-law gave her a website address where my friend will answer writing prompts about her life. “What was it like growing up where you did?” “What did you and your mom do together?” “Your Dad?” Your grandmother?” “What did you want to be when you grew up?” “Did you have any dreams?” “What did you play with?” “Tell me about your best friend when you were little.” And more. And she is to load whatever pictures she can, or her son and daughter in law can, and the web company will put it all together in a book for her granddaughter.
I almost cried. “I LOVE this!” I told her.
“If I sent you a journal with those questions would you do it?”
“Exactly, but you’re at the computer every day, and this will take ten or fifteen minutes.”
“That’s for sure,” she said. “They give very little space for each response. I have to be quite succinct.”
I told her about the death trap, about the suicide rap.
“This is why I’m calling you.”
“I feel so special now.”
“You know what I mean. How can I be short in my answers but say a lot.”
“Don’t try and write everything. If you asked how my weekend was, what would I say?”
“Same thing you always say: “Fine, you?” We laughed.
“Exactly! Because you’re asking me to sum up in probably a few minutes at best before you need to get off the phone the previous seventy-two hours! That’s just a mean question and few people anywhere answer anything other than ‘fine, you?’”
“But if I said, “Fine, went for a walk, did some work, watched…Oh, I almost forgot! Saturday night about midnight I heard a noise in the woods, so I put on the spotlights and…”
“Oh I’d have loved it if you had something interesting like that even once!”
“Exactly! Write about midnight, not about the weekend. Don’t write about your mother, write about one trip you took with her. Write about one thing you did with her. What expression did she use that you remember? That’s writing.”
“What toy did you play with when you were growing up?”
“Oh, you know what? I forget, but I’m forgetting a lot these days.”
“Okay so this is really why I called. Now I’m going to do it.”
“I wish I had something like that from my grandparents. Hell, my own parents. How cool if they had that. The highlights, the best memories, of their lives. Nothing sweeping like Facebook or vague like pictures alone, but moments. Quick 100 word memories.”
I think she was going to start right after we hung up. I thought about it the rest of the day, how I really wish everyone I knew had done so. I know so little about my paternal grandmother, and while I’ve heard my parents stories their whole lives, how cool for my son to have books like that of their youth.
“You should do one too, Bob,” she said.
“I think he’s got enough of my stories written down to sustain him. Too many!”
She was quiet awhile, then said, “Bob, I know for certain there are some stories you haven’t told him.”
I was in my office thinking about how to describe my father’s laugh in less than 100 words, or my mother’s sense of humor. The way my grandmother would always look out the window. The way a friend of mine would always hold his nose when he laughed, and another wanted to be but never became a dancer.
I want to tell him about a cow I heard one morning, about what really caused me to finally grow up.
There’s too much and not enough time. There’s the problem: the problem isn’t that we have such lengthy stories to tell; it’s that life is too succinct. And we barrel through it with hardly any time at all to remember how beautiful it is.
2 thoughts on “100 Words A Day”
Nice one, Bob. I just had one of those moments when I caught myself whistling tunelessly and with almost no sound while I was doing dishes. It my grandmother’s mannerism when she was working. Not many of us left who remember that little windy, tuneless, whistle with a buzzing hum beneath it.
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div dir=”ltr”>if i had read this completely i would have remembered thinking like a teacher. as months go by i do th