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My Three Minutes

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On Monday night, I finished the first work of fiction I’ve written in—well, decades, surely, at least since beginning graduate school (in history) in 1990, and probably for some years before. I’d long ago determined, you see, that fiction is just not my thing.

And the result is … 600 words long. That’s exactly the allowed maximum.

I wrote it ostensibly as a submission in this year’s NPR “3-Minute Fiction” contest, with this mandatory first sentence:

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.

And that sentence gave me a lot of trouble. Not only do I find the rhythm of it is not my own (I wouldn’t put that comma after “finally”), but the sentence also makes a few demands, such as: the protagonist is a woman; the book is closed; the initial emotion is reluctance or dread; and there are two physical spaces—divided by that door—“in play.” Yes, I’m sure that some of those who are especially creative were able not only to work around but to exploit those apparent choices, but even so, the writer is forced at least into a reactive posture.

I admit that submitting for the contest was never my main purpose. I have some faith in my writing, but only compared to the “ordinary” public, not to the readers of literary fiction and their carefully wrought (perhaps over-wrought, but that’s another debate) sentences. A writing contest? I wouldn’t be a serious competitor.

No, I was writing for my fellow “TC Wrimos,” the small group of us who met around the fantastical demands of NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—last November. We liked each other and had fun at our two organized group writing events, and all of us wanted to have writing—creativity, perhaps more broadly—have a greater place in our lives. So we decided to keep meeting, and even if the first such meeting was pushed into 2012—and then all the way into the second month of 2012—we did meet.

And they were writing: revising and sharing their projects from NaNoWriMo. I was busy myself, but in the more conceptual end. I hadn’t written a novel in November (my project—and I want to emphasize that I did reach the 50,000 word goal!—was epistolary, rather than fictional), but I have been focusing on writing, and in particular where I have been intuitive and haphazard but think I can be systematic, on the structure of long pieces. So I’ve been more a planner and reader than a writer. We’ve met twice, and I haven’t had anything to share.

So I joined in with the other three who were working on the contest. I didn’t give it priority—I didn’t actually sit down to write until Sunday afternoon, less than twelve hours before the submission deadline—but I did commit to producing something.

And that first sentence just bedeviled me. I am out of practice at creating out of whole cloth, and I was floundering through the constraints of that sentence. I had one idea, refined it on the long bicycle ride to Traverse City on Saturday, and on Sunday entirely reversed the point of view—and I just couldn’t make it work. It grew more labored and serious and constricted as the entire afternoon slipped away and a scheduled dinner with friends hurried toward me.

Then I had another inspiration—an unlikely one, I thought at first, reaching back to my earliest pleasures with fiction: science fiction, and in particular the speculative scenarios of a possible and not-too-distant future. But of course I ended up there. I was writing for pleasure, so we return to what we know.

I left 300 words behind when I went for dinner (I admit I actually took my laptop, “just in case”), but I did finish on Monday evening, and then revised it. And then I posted it to the private blog we all use, to share our work. Finally, I was sharing. And even better, freed of my own story, I was therefore free to indulge in what my friends had shared—to enjoy, and to send back my reactions. Because that was the whole point.

It was an interesting exercise, to write within such severe constraints. It was almost inevitably about a single moment—and singular, too; a critical pivot—and could involve two, perhaps three characters at the intersection. To leave room for the events of that moment, there was precious little space for exposition or background. The reader had to understand without the writer having time to explain—a difficult task.

In my third iteration, I shaped in my mind enough of the world I was showing to place the scene of my story. I was speculating about a future in which people have actually colonized other worlds—distant worlds. I have not allowed that faster-than-light travel has also become possible. Traveling to those worlds, therefore, means traveling a very long time, which given the constraints of supplies, would require some form of hibernation.

What comes with hibernation, of course, is that the person leaving is departing decisively in both distance and time. It would be possible, I suppose, to make the return journey back on Earth—but the person would arrive back at a wholly different place. It would be like Jesus hopping off a bus in Jerusalem and saying, “So—what did I miss?”

In such circumstances, wouldn’t people want to leave behind something of themselves, to be remembered? Thus, the Public Record Office (with nods to the British office of that actual name; I love the British-ness of the singular “Record,” which American researchers typically misunderstand as “Records”). The PRO of this imagination is a place dedicated to the mission of memory. Those departing are making a one-way journey, so the similarity to death is unavoidable.

One of my friends did ask, “Is this the afterlife?” To me, no. But here’s the important part: Because I had to leave off almost all exposition to focus on that single moment of interaction between two characters, what I believe as the writer is not decisive in answering the question. The story is what it is, and wholly what it is. If I had something in mind beyond what I wrote in those 600 words, it might be interesting to the reader, but doesn’t the reader have as great a claim upon the “meaning” of the story as the writer?

The writer may be better informed about the details, having spent much longer with them, but only the text itself is definitive. In a fictional work there is no “greater truth” than what is contained within the work; the author’s beliefs and intent may help to illuminate the work, but they can’t override it. That Homer might be a group identity, or that Francis Bacon may (very improbably) have written Shakespeare’s works—these are interesting questions, but the answers shouldn’t really alter our view of the works. (This is why, incidentally, I prefer not to know too much about any actors I watch, and why much of the debate over the authenticity of paintings strikes me as relevant only to understanding the painter, not the painting.)

I’ve taken more than twice as many words as were in my short story to say: I enjoyed venturing back in. The task was defined primarily by its limits, but in its way those limits were the best part. As they say, you be the judge.