One of the classes I’m taking this fall is a fiction writing class with Steven Galloway. Normally these classes are workshops wherein the people in the class write things and then we read them and then we talk about them. But at the beginning of the year, no one has had a chance to write anything or bring it in with enough time for the rest of the class to read it and discuss it, and so the first class or two is filled with administration stuff and talking about writing and the workshop process and the class schedule and often getting out early.
In Steven Galloway’s fiction class, we were given a little writing assignment on the first day, mainly to take up time on the second day. That assignment came in two parts: Write a 6-word story, and write a postcard story.
The 6-word story comes from one that Earnest Hemingway wrote (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) which he called his best work. (Other examples from Wired magazine here.) I like the idea of trying to conjure in only 6 words enough that the reader can really imagine a whole story from it. There’s a tale behind those baby shoes.
(The one I wrote: “Stars go nova; my worlds die.” I liked the idea that the mere two words “my worlds” say a lot about the person speaking, and that one could take it as apathy on the part of the speaker, or perhaps a certain sadness.)
The second part of the assignment, the postcard story, was to get a postcard, and then write a piece of fiction about what’s on the postcard on the postcard. That is, the story has to be short enough that it can fit on a postcard.
This strikes me as, in general, a pretty good writing exercise. It forces some amount of succinctness in the writing, and a lot of writers tend to overwrite things. It’s also a good challenge to have it be a complete story: a beginning, middle and end, some kind of change in the character, something the reader can take from it.
I also took up the personal challenge of making mine be a sort of introduction to my writing, by having it include all the genres or themes I usually work with: speculative, queer, history- or mythology-inspired. I think I succeeded in all the challenges:
This morning I fucked Guo Peng as snow fell on the Wall. I thought of my wife and child home in Beijing as he grabbed at me.
Then They came, down from the hills as we stood frozen at our posts. The signal fires warned us, but they could not prepare us. They were not Mongols. They were not human.
I imagine Beijing will fall within days.
I want to tell him what I’ve wanted to tell him for months. But I slip on the icy stairs. Neither of us will survive the night.
If you’re a writer, give it a try — it’s a fun and quick exercise, and it at least gets the creative juices flowing a bit.
And I’d love to hear your 6-word stories in the comments.