I was recently invited to write for a blog comprised of a group of writers who each post 100 words of creative writing once a week. Each writer takes something, an image, an emotion, or a word from the last post, and write one hundred words of their own. It was a bit intimidating at first, since most of them are professional, published writers. I agreed to join the group a bit hesitantly, but it has proven to be a great learning experience for me as a writer of fiction.
I believe that a lot of times fiction writers focus on their characters and plots as a whole rather than the words they use to depict their stories. I was one of them, because I believed that prose was different than poetry. To me, poetry was juice concentrate, straight out of the package, and that prose was juice concentrate watered down. Prose had to follow rules. The package says add water. If you don't add water, you don't have enough scenes, dialogue, or scenes. Poetry didn't need water, and poets were allowed to break the rules of creative writing. It had to be more concentrated with dense imagery and precise wording. Writing one hundred words once a week woke me up, shook me, and made me slow my writing (and reading) down.
My first post was difficult. I began by putting my anxiety about writing with such a talented group aside. Then came the really hard part. I stared at a blank document on my computer screen for some time. I occasionally typed a few words, but deleted them quickly. I did this over and over again. Once I had my "shitty first draft" (I have come to believe that horrible first drafts are essential to getting a story started, thanks to Anne Lamott's advice in her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life), I revised revised revised. It took me most of the day to get my one hundred words to its final draft. To say what I wanted to say. To deliver the image that I wanted to elicit.
Here is my first "one hundred words:"
"Look Her in the Eye
She looked down at her fingers, her knuckles ashy and rough, her fingernails sloping in different directions, jagged and sharp. Dark spots of blood formed on her cuticles, seeping out of her skin until it hit the air, then dried, looking like fig jam on burnt toast. She wondered if the darkness that crept, circling around her, would ever stop and look her in the eye. Her arms cradled her knees against her chest, and she rocked, back and forth. She felt its warm, wretched breath tickle the back of her ear. In the kitchen, her toast was burning, and in here, her body was misbehaving."
I'm still not happy with it. It's rough and needs work. But every time I read it, I remember how I focused on every word and thought about whether or not I used them in the right way. I asked myself, is this word in the right place? Is it the right word to use for this particular scene or image? The 100 word limit has forced me to contemplate the very building blocks of language: words. It has transformed the way I write and revise. After all, if I am not using the right words, I am not doing my characters, my story, justice.
I just finished reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Her work is such a joy to read, because after years of writing, she has mastered the use of words and is able to describe situations and emotions that are extremely difficult to put into words. Here is an excerpt that I must have read a hundred times.
"Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself." The Year of Magical Thinking (P. 189)
Didion is able to put into words what most people, most writers, are unable to, because she uses the right words to convey her thoughts.
My hope is to continue writing and reading slowly, relishing each word, so that my images are clear, my characters are real, and my stories are worth savoring.