WRITING SHORT: 49/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

This is the forty-ninth piece in the series: My summer of writing short is nearing its close. What did I learn in the seven weeks since the first one? I discovered that I’d been wrong about everything except that I would stick it out. (If there’s one thing I do know about myself, it’s that I don’t give up easy.)

I thought I’d be freeing up time. I found myself bound to an inexorable daily duty of finding something potentially “short” and then cutting it down to size. This double task consumed more of each day than I could have imagined or care to admit even now.

It was clear that “short” needed a word limit, to keep each piece from metastasizing. I settled on 400 words as the maximum that might qualify, but had to subtract 21 words for the repeated introduction that held all the posts together. What can you say in 379 words that’s moderately interesting to at least a few people? And then how do you pare away what you’ve written, word by word, unessential sentence by unessential sentence, till you’re nearly there – and then rephrase, still more tightly, to come in under the wire? I must have revisited each finished piece three or four times before hitting “publish,” and then went on diddling with some after they’d gone into the world.

I did cheat by including four pieces written before this summer. (The last comes tomorrow.) But the other forty-six taught me that in writing, form doesn’t necessarily follow function. Here it was almost always the reverse. There’s so much you can’t do in 379 words — memoir, detailed narrative, a substantive think piece – that the form begins to dictate what you can say and how you say it. It would be hubris to compare it to sonnet writing (eight lines, six lines, and out – all in iambic pentameter) but except for  experiments with dialogue, a letter and quoting a poem, it was something like that.

These days readers seem to like “short.” Easy on the eye, on the mind, on how you spend your time. This summer I’ve persuaded myself there’s also much to be said for “longer.” It may take longer to read; it stays with you longer.  Isn’t that what we’re writing for?

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26 thoughts on “WRITING SHORT: 49/50

    • Glad you enjoyed them, Gerard. Bill says I should collect them in a small book. I’m still thinking about that.

      Now about diamonds and bricks. Yes, the small diamond is lovelier, and not just “sometimes.” (If you think a flashing chip on a woman’s finger is lovely.) But a well-fired brick has many uses in our lives, whereas a small diamond is only useful for telling the world its owner is engaged and her fiancé hasn’t got as much money as her best friend’s fiancé. 😉 (Just kidding.)

      Moreover, I do believe that the twenty-first century mania for sound bites, tweets, and quickies does not enlarge the mind or promote enlightenment. Whether one can do much better in 379 words, however pleasant they may be to read, is doubtful.

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      • Yes, Nina. But you did say and I quote ‘that the form begins to dictate what you can say and how you say it’. With anything creative the artist should avoid dominating from the start what he intends to say and how he/she says it, and ought to feel free to meander and let the work itself suggest what to do or say next. An interplay with the work (or art) and the creator.
        Bill’s suggestion for a small book is spot on and is what I wanted to say but was too hesitant in case of a rebuke.

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  1. I think you’ve done a magnificent job! I’ve enjoyed so many of your posts (missed a few accidentally as even I have the odd hectic day). You shared so much of yourself, your thoughts and meditations on ‘life, the universe and everything’. Having edited a whole novel, and then edited again, and then edited again, I’m in no doubt of the challenge of presenting your memory, argument or whatever within a very restrictive word count. And yes, it’s much easier to write more words than fewer – assuming you want to engage/inspire/inform and not just ramble!

    I’ve loved your summer. Clearly it has has brought more momentum into your blogging process, not less. Bravo Nina!

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    • Thank you so so much, Julie. Your remarks are especially welcome from one who knows about “editing!” I keep thinking my “blogging process” may have produced the raw material for at least one book. After this summer, it may be two!

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  2. Ive admired your stories, long and short – and I love seeing this in my inbox every day and getting to know something about you. Despite your feelings about the effort exerted, as your reader, I feel grateful.

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    • Janet, there’s an extensive appreciation of Sacks by Michiko Kakutani in the Sunday New York Times today (available online), and I’m sure there will be many more to come (in addition to the detailed obituary which has already appeared). It would therefore be presumptuous for me to add any personal reflections I might have, especially as — like probably all people in their eighties — news of another death among those of us still surviving is frightening to me. (Even Sacks admitted fear when he learned in February he had only a few more months to live.) What one can perhaps also admire about him, over and above his work and his writing, is that he made the most of the hand he had been dealt (orthodox Jewish family, repudiation when he came out as gay, bullying in school), and lived to the hilt, not only in science but in music, body building and many other pursuits — right to the end. His personal assistant reported he was holding a fountain pen even in his last days. The final piece to be published, not so long ago, entitled “Sabbath” (also in the Times) suggests he was content that he had lived a good life. I suppose one can’t ask for more.

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  3. Nina…I’m having you with my morning coffee and will really miss the 50, which l looked forward to each day….but this fan loves your writing in any way you choose to create it….so go to it girl!!!!! P.S. if you put your summer’s work in a book will it be “50 SHADES OF NINA?”

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    • Wrong title, Rita. Too derivative. And misleading. The 50 shorts were hardly sexy, much less sado-masochistic. (At least I hope not!) If the “if” stops being an “if,” the title would most likely be “Eighty-fifth Summer.”

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  4. I like the idea of “50 Shades of Nina” but with your personal stories (and all those sexcapades). Concise writing can be more difficult for some but too many writers include superfluous information that adds nothing to the story. Personally I have enjoyed all your writing.

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    • Thanks, Kate. If I ever get my act together, maybe two books — with the stuff that’s now on “Pages” (plus a few more) in one book, together with my two stories published elsewhere, and these fifty — which are a different kettle of fish entirely — in another. We’ll see.

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  5. One more voice in support of your short pieces. As much as I enjoyed your longer ones, I admit that I became a more frequent follower this summer. Even retired, I find there aren’t enough reading hours in a day. My sincere thanks to you for sharing parts of your life, your thoughts, and your feelings. …speaking of which, re: earlier blog, I still think thoughts are the interpreted “products” of feelings. How can we talk/write about feelings without the thoughts that translate feelings into words? Without words, feelings remain physical manifestations, seems to me.

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    • Thank you very much, Beaujolais, for your readership (and for your vote). A preference for “short” doesn’t surprise me, and when I’m pressed for time, I prefer it myself. As a writer, however, it’s usually like hopping along on one leg. So writers do have to decide at some point: go for the readership, or for what they really want to say? Some are lucky enough to have the two goals coincide. But you can’t hold your breath for luck to find you, especially find me, who was always an outlier. So I’m sure there will again be longer pieces in TGOB’s future.

      About articulated feelings: putting feelings into words doesn’t turn them into thoughts. Saying “I hate (or love) you” isn’t a thought. “People who live in civilized societies have many discontents” is a thought. One can discuss thoughts. Feelings are not subjects for discussion. When expressed, they make the recipient of the feelings happy or unhappy as the case may be, but that’s the extent of it. You can’t reason someone else into loving you.

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  6. I still give you great credit. When I started my blog last November I wrote every two days. I never thought I’d run out of things to say. Then writers block and lethargy eventually came to be regular battles to fight. I’m down to basically once a week, and I have STRONG admiration for those who do more. Kudos to you.

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    • Thanks, Marty. If you have any interest in being (if I may call it that) “regular,” you have to think of it as a job — perhaps a part-time job, but a job nevertheless, meaning there are expectations to be met. The expectations may be all in your head, but after a while they’re in other people’s heads too, and it would be a shame to let them down. All the same, you seem to be doing just fine, despite your (virtual) handwringing. Does Gorgeous have any professional insights into your future as a blogger?

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  7. I found your series most enjoyable, Nina. And was always eager to read the new post. I agree with you that the form can influence the content. Setting up a framework such as this, is a limitation and a discipline. But you managed to present a variety of subjects with very attractive style. One gets the impression that many of us try to woo more readers, yet I have doubts about the value of popularity. In literature as well as in our personal lives, what we really look for is an affinity between minds. I did have the feeling that this writing exercise was a bit like your attempt to regain your ease at playing music. And I’m impressed by your willingness to work hard. Though the work was not evident in the results.

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    • Thank you for all you say, Shimon. (Here but also elsewhere.) As for popularity, I suppose it’s a matter of degree. That is, what is the sound of a tree falling in the forest if there’s no one in the forest to hear it? On the other hand, I do tend to be suspicious when I come across a post that has hundreds liking it — not suspicious of the post but of the hundreds. What was it they found there that I failed to see? So yes, I agree: the writer would like to be read by a reader with an affinity of mind. I feel lucky in my baker’s dozen or so (including you, of course) who speak up here regularly.

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    • Thanks for your input, Hilary. I still have no idea what I’ll do going forward. I assume it will come to me in the fullness of time. The 50 Writing Shorts were a kind of accident. What worries me about deciding to do just “a long piece” once a week is the burden it imposes on the piece to be good. I think I will leave the future for chance just now, especially as I find on my return from Florida that I too am about to become time-strapped, not only as a reader but as a writer. I do appreciate your appreciation, though. 🙂

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