Some of the students loved words like “denial” and “dysfunction.” Characters in fiction “had issues.” It was the early 90s and people talked like this.
I’d just gotten a flyer in my mailbox announcing the World’s Best Short Short Story contest sponsored by Florida State University and the late Jerome Stern. I made copies of the 1991 winner, “Baby, Baby, Baby,” by Francois Camoin. We read it out loud. Everyone admired the story’s energy and wild inventiveness.
“Baby,” I wrote on the blackboard. I asked everyone to name a food.
“Rutabagas,” said the country singer.
“Pigs’ knuckles,” said the clown who liked to shock vegetarians.
“Honey,” said the shy, sweet girl from Vermont.
I asked for energetic verbs. “Anything but ‘to be.’”
“Spit,” said the boy who loved chewing tobacco.
They were catching on.
In my own notebook I wrote: “The sun spit honey.” I would never have thought of that sentence without the help of Vermont Sweetie and Mr. Chew.
On the blackboard we soon had our vocabulary. Simple words, edible, agricultural: stew, squash, dirt, fields. Body parts and household goods: Toenails, combs, castanets. Country Singer gave us a pick-up truck.
“We’re only allowed two abstractions. Loss and desire. Go.”
I gave us ten minutes. A student on the track team leant us his watch. When I do this exercise now, I use a meditation timer.
Everyone turned what they wrote into a 250-word story that night. Some of them would publish their stories later, others would never write fiction again, but they still liked what had come from this exercise.
I had never entered a national contest before and in May I found out that this thing I’d scribbled in the company of my students, then revised, had won. Twenty years on, I still do this exercise to limber up when I’m starting a new chapter or scene. It’s the best antidote I know for the problem of overthinking a story. Scavenge a salad of simple but sensory-rich nouns and active verbs then watch your brain spit honey—and dirt and rutabagas—onto the page.
Natalia Rachel Singer teaches creative writing at St. Lawrence University. She is the author of a memoir, Scraping by in the Big Eighties, and is completing a novel. You can read her daily posts at Winter with Zoe.
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