Last weekend, I attended a conference called “Compose” at Clackamas Community College near Portland Oregon. Unlike so many conferences these days, we did not talk about marketing, pitching, platforms or publishing. It was all about writing, and I learned something very important. I learned to try again.
In a flash fiction class taught by Samuel Snoek-Brown, we read some super short stories, then wrote our own. Then we wrote them again. And again. Each time, we were instructed to look for the moment, the epiphany at the heart of our story arc. Even though we were trying to write as short as possible, we needed a scene, a character, and something happening. We needed sensory details. In our second pass, we were to add whatever was missing and subtract whatever was not essential. In flash fiction, which can range from a few words to 1,000 words, much is left to the reader to figure out. There isn’t room to spell everything out. Finally we were asked to write one essential sentence that told our story. That one sentence was so rich because we could not waste a single word..
My next class was memoir, taught by Jay Ponteri, whom I had met last fall when he was one of our guest authors at the Nye Beach Writers series. He’s a dynamic writer but just as impressive as a teacher. With a two-word prompt, “laundry basket,” we filled pages with memories and story possibilities. But here’s the thing. We divided our pages in half. On one side, we wrote what the prompt first brought to mind. On the other side, we jotted down other ideas that came up in the process. Then we took a new page and wrote about those other ideas, starting a new column with what came into our minds next. People came up with wonderful stories, all different. In many cases the original prompt disappeared and the story became about something else. The writers were able to find it because they went beyond that first idea. They let their minds wander past the laundry basket to what else it made them think about and took the time to explore wherever it led.
So often we feel like once we’ve written something, we can’t change it, we’re stuck with what we have. Or we’re anxious to send it out, so we hit save and send and move on to the next piece. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can try again. We can dump all but the one gold nugget that we find and go where it leads us, to the gold mine
Of course it helps to be in a classroom with nothing to distract you, no kids, jobs, cell phones, chores, or Facebook. Look for opportunities for undistracted writing in classes, writing groups, or whatever. Leave your desk and go where all you have to do is write. Then try it again. And again. Don’t think about marketing or publishing. Just think about getting to the heart of the story. If it takes 1,000 or 10,000 words to find that perfect 100 words, so be it.
Now let’s go write.