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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WRITING SHORT: 32/50

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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.]

What if I’d been less timid in days gone by? Such as when teaching Freshman English at USC.  Aged twenty-two, I would sit cross-legged on the front desk in pencil skirt and white linen blouse, imparting my view of life to a group of sorority and fraternity pledges, a few Korean War vets, and several members of the Freshman football team who sat slouched against the back wall, exchanging sotto voce opinions about my ankles and other anatomical parts.

The weekly writing assignments generally resulted in compositions mediocre to bad. (I was not an easy grader.) However, one stood out. The writer had a strong sense of what was wrong with the world and no hesitation about putting it on paper. Despite his technical mistakes, I gave him an A minus and a “See me.”

He was eighteen, and not frat material. Not a jock either. Strongly built, tall and suspicious, he was racking up D’s and F’s in all his other courses. They were basically crap, he said. He’d pretty much stopped going. How come the A minus? I told him how come. I encouraged him. He wrote more. He never missed a class. He hung around afterwards, wanting to talk. Intrigued, I listened.

His father had thrown him out a year before, for unacceptable behaviors he didn’t itemize. He was living on his own and paying for college by running drugs into California from Mexico on a boat belonging to his uncle. (Whether the uncle knew was not made clear.) He’d had girls, but never a keeper. Soon he was wishing for someone like me.

I had a steady boyfriend. Tony was my student, and four years younger. But I’d never before met a strong, angry drug runner  who wanted someone like me. I let him buy me a beer.

We had the beer at an out-of-the-way bar where no one would see. Then his eyes asked the question. I chickened out. The next semester, he left school. He’d knocked up a girl and was marrying her. He said It was the right thing to do.

All the same, I sometimes wonder. Suppose I’d gone down the road less traveled. Would my life have been different? Would his?

WRITING SHORT: 25/50

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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.]

I was apparently a child not deft on her feet. Many photographs of me before the age of five show a square white bandage on my left knee, held in place on two sides by white surgical tape. One of those bandage-producing falls is among my earliest memories. I am about three. My mother and I are returning from the park with another mother and her child. The two women stop for a moment to end their chat across from the house where we live.

Eager to show what a big girl I am, I pull free from my mother’s hand and step off the curb to run home alone. In the middle of the street, I fall. My left knee stings. I hear screaming from the sidewalk. Turning my head sideways, I see the round headlights and vertical grill of a large grey car coming right at me. There isn’t time to get up. And the scraped knee hurts too much to move. But I’m not scared.

The car squeals to a stop a little more than a foot away. If I reached out, I could touch its metal bumper. My mother rushes into the street to scoop me up. I can’t understand why she’s so upset. The car wouldn’t have hurt me. Of course it was going to stop. What I’m upset about is the prospect of her disinfecting the raw knee with cotton dipped in alcohol once we get home, before bandaging it. Alcohol I do understand. It hurts.

I shouldn’t have wiggled out of her grasp. Or she should have held on tighter. But I’m glad the worst thing I could think of at three when lying in the path of a moving car was how alcohol felt on a scraped knee. All young children should be made to feel safe, despite the dangers everywhere.

WRITING SHORT: 7/50

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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.]

Sasha our cat has been spending the latter part of these summer nights curled up on the desk chair in my office, nose tucked between her paws. The chair has a cool mesh seat and likely smells of me. Between eight and nine in the morning she then comes down the hall to our bedroom, whether or not we’re still sleeping, for a belly rub.

But since I began these daily shorts, I’ve been waking earlier than usual to draft a new one while the house is quiet and my mind still in touch with whatever is inside it. When I came to my desk this morning, the chair was therefore occupied. Rather than dislodge a sleeping cat, I gently rolled chair and cat away from the desk and sat myself in front of the computer on a backless, not comfortable, ergonomic “thing” usually pushed aside into a corner of the room.

Crazy cat lady? Perhaps. Except Sasha was not insensible to my largesse. As I began to type, I heard low contented purring behind me. The perfect soundtrack for blogging.

WRITING SHORT: 5/50

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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.]

When I was a young child, July 16 was one of the two dates in the calendar I knew as well as my own birthday. It was the day my mother was born. The other was January 18, my father’s birthday. They were as important to me as Christmas and the presents it brought.

The year she turned forty, my mother turned her back on July 16.  “Don’t remind me!” she said. It was the era of pin-up girls. She must have felt she was finished. (She would live another forty-nine years.)  She didn’t understand the birthdays of the people we love are worth celebrating no matter how many have come before, because we’re so glad they’re here for us to love.

My mother hasn’t been here to love for more than two decades. After I grew up, she also made loving her very hard for me. She didn’t succeed. I think of her every July 16. I probably always will.

WRITING SHORT: 3/50

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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.]

Just before bedtime Monday evening, I tripped while hurrying to turn out a forgotten spotlight in the living room. The fall was hard, on my face. It felt as if I had smashed my nose. My glasses lay ahead of me, unharmed, where they had flown off.  When I lifted my head, blood fell in large drops on the wood floor; I thought it was a heavy nosebleed, one that hurt.

 Bill cleaned me up, stanched copious bleeding with Band-Aids, reported on the visible damage: substantial horizontal cut to bridge of nose, second cut at inner left eyebrow, smaller cut at side of left eye. And yes, a left nostril nosebleed.  But nothing broken. In the bathroom mirror: blood covering my top teeth from damaged mucosa and rapidly swelling upper lip. Yesterday both eyes had turned partially black. I looked as if I’d been mugged.

 Now Bill speculates on how it could have happened. Scatter rug? Flimsy Indian footwear? Fatigue? I speculate it might have been my unconscious, searching for something to blog about next. I wouldn’t put it past me.

WRITING SHORT: 2/50

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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.] 

We moved to Princeton in February 2006, more than nine years ago. Yet walking and driving its streets bring back no particular memories. I know only that these streets aren’t new to me; I’ve walked or driven them before. That wouldn’t be true in New York or Boston, if I’d stayed put in either of those two cities where I lived most of my adult life, and where many neighborhoods and streets would bring important past events to mind.

I therefore sometimes wonder: Is it better to have been a rolling stone as I was, cutting geographic connections to my history as I go? Or would I have been happier, now I’m in my eighties, if circumstances hadn’t continually uprooted me?

Not that I really had a choice.