I’ve been teaching a techniques class at Bowling Green State University for more than a decade, and one exercise I’ve enjoyed has been the common image story.
I got the idea from an anthology that came out in 1992, The Wedding Cake in the Middle of the Road. The conceit of this anthology is that every story included should include that element, a wedding cake in the middle of the road. Some fine writers, like Charles Baxter and Ann Beattie, contributed.
The exercise is quite simple. As a group, we brainstorm about some image or notion that seems a bit unusual, off, and yet compelling. It should be something that at least suggests that a story is needed to explain it. Then, by the end of the semester, we all have to write a short-short that includes the image. I’ve arbitrarily defined a short-short as 1000 words or less, though my own exercises have generally been shorter.
Here is a partial list of prompts my classes have come up with over the years:
- Chandelier in a vacant lot
- Raggedy Ann in a swimming pool
- Bricks in a baby carriage
- Baby doll in a wheelchair
- A bat inside a purse
- Panties in a pine tree
- Trombone in a shopping cart
- Lobster in a Laundromat
This is one exercise in Techniques that I always do along with my class. It’s fun and challenging, and as I often tell the MFA’s, having some formal requirement can make you more creative, not less. It’s analogous to a poet working in form – trying to make the repeating lines work in a villanelle might help you discover something that you would not have otherwise.
The most difficult part of writing a short-short, I think, is bringing it in for a safe landing. Without being able to rely on the normal gestures of narrative closure, how can you bring a very abbreviated piece of writing to an end? A short-short is, in some sense, a drama of sentences. Each sentence must fascinate on its own, but also impel a reader to the next sentence. But what quality makes a sentence work as a last sentence?
My own notion works for the short-shorts that I’ve written, though I won’t swear that it will be valid for everyone. If the sentences in a short-short impel by posing questions or intriguing the reader, the very last sentence has something in it that answers questions without posing a new one.
In “Bats,” I remember writing about women with bats in their purses, in the autumnal landscape of Northwest Ohio. The question – what are those bats doing in those purses – was evident throughout. The turn in writing it came when I found that even in November, the women dream, and they dream the dreams of bats. The last line – an image of what the dreams of bats might look like that also revealed something about all those sensible women – was the answer to the question.
I’m very proud to have won the Barthelme Prize in Short Prose for “Bats,” in part because I admire Donald Barthelme’s work extravagantly, especially his story “The School.” Gulf Coast will shortly be publishing the new winner, Emma Bolden. I look forward to reading her work.