Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Imagine a photo from inside a cafe. A newspaper is on the table in front of the window. A man is going by on the sidewalk.

This photo is meant to be the focus for a story that can be read in less than 3 minutes, a little less than 600 words. The stories are for a contest on NPR. http://www.npr.com/threeminutefiction.

Here’s my entry:

Since I was back in town, we would have breakfast together, my ex- and I. Separate tables. It would be accidental. Or not. I’d been gone for five years, so I didn’t know whether he still ate there, but he was a creature of habit. And I a creature of guile.

I didn’t know what I hoped. I’d brought along a newspaper to pretend to be absorbed in it if there were someone with him, maybe someone who had spent the night. Actually, I suppose I was more curious than anything else. We hadn’t kept in touch and I sort of wondered how he’d coped, especially since he’d said he couldn’t go on without me. Obviously he must have, if he showed up. Since then I’d sometimes felt I couldn’t go on without HIM, his support and his warmth. I had to write myself a letter to remind myself how cold and harsh everything had gotten.

But then I’d dream of the studio and how the cat would sleep with us, her purring a kind of soundtrack. I knew it would end, of course. He was my first lover and much older than I, which is what I wanted because one of us had to know how to do things, isn’t that right? So I knew I’d move on and maybe he sort of knew that as well. He was so famous, so sought after by women, that I knew he could replace me easily.

The door was glass so I saw him as soon as he arrived and put his hand up to pull the handle. I recognized his old coat. Our eyes met and held. All the plans fell away. He did not smile. For a long moment he stood there, then turned away and hurried on down the sidewalk.

I could not decide whether to follow. When I opened the door, the burst of air made the pages of my abandoned newspaper turn.


Some of the entries have been posted already. When I last looked, there were two stories. One was about a woman who put down her newspaper briefly while she went to the counter to pick up her coffee and returned to discover that a man had mistaken the paper for an art installation. He raves and engages her for an art show of pieces like this one. She successfully complies. The other story is about a man who rises in the middle of the night in order to go to coffee shops and work the crossword puzzle in their newspapers, moving from one to the next, growing ever faster at his self-imposed task, and then going off to his day job, satisfied that he has skunked so many crossword fans. I suspect both writers are young, but maybe not.

What interests me is my own inner life while I go through this process of writing, submission and waiting. First, I tried to trump the others by submitting an mp3 version of me reading the story as well as sending the print version. Second, I contacted “Doctor Dave” who also teaches at George Mason University to see if he knew anything revealing about Cheuse, the judge. (He didn’t.) His opinion was that my story was too much “tell” and not enough “show.” I discover about my writing is that I’m more interested in “tell” than in “show.” Some might call it narrative or plot. I recount a sequence of events more than has been fashionable for quite some time. I find that I prefer reading this style. But it is not the “workshop” style taught to my peers. It is assigned to lowbrow “genre.”

There’s no doubt that I’m jealous and competitive. I applied to Iowa Writer’s Workshop once. Turned down, of course. Alan Cheuse is using their students to do the first cut on the torrent of stories arriving at NPR. EVERYONE wants to be a writer now. I’m less interested in being a writer and more interested in actually writing.

And beyond that, the management of consciousness in the writer -- where the stories come from inside the writer. I know that for Tim a story is a kind of vision, formed inside him sort of the way an egg forms in a hen. Scratch that. The way a pearl forms inside an oyster. Other people insist on a plot outline before they even begin. Stephen King claims that his characters take on a life of their own and act out the story for him. Another writer scoffs that that’s childish and deceptive, a writer must be in charge.

Last night’s movie was “The Ballad of Jack and Rose.” When people say something like “ballad,” that means certain form and other assumptions, but that’s another post. The first time I watched this movie a few evenings ago, I couldn’t understand how an Indie movie could attract top-of-the-line actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Beau Bridges. The director’s name, Rebecca Miller, meant nothing to me. So I googled to get context. Rebecca Miller is the daughter of Arthur Miller by his marriage to Inge Morath. She is married to Daniel Day-Lewis. I don’t know what the connection to Beau Bridges is, but he has a history of being in small idealistic movies.

I found a Charley Rose YouTube of Rebecca and Daniel Day-Lewis and found her lovely face very revealing. Daniel had a huge beard and was clearly determined to be non-committal and cryptic, probably to protect Rebecca. I discovered that Arthur Miller had a Down Syndrome son, also with Morath, and that it was Day-Lewis who visited the boy and finally managed to connect Arthur Miller to him after a lifetime of denial. Day-Lewis himself had a famous but distant father, a poet. Arthur Miller was married to Marilyn Monroe before Morath. After Morath’s death, though he was 89, Miller moved in a young painter whom Rebecca despised and evicted when her father died. On the one hand, all this is gossip, but on the other hand it explains the movie and even why Rebecca Miller would make movies. After all, Arthur Miller drew on the same material for his plays.

So I will tell you that my 3-minute story is autobiographical: Bob and I DID have breakfast at separate tables long after the divorce. But it is NOT autobiographical because it was always a rather joyful experience -- even rowdy! And repeated. Sometimes we hopped to be at the same table. I used the events in quite a different way. What can you trust in fiction? Am I telling the truth? Does it matter?


Lance Michael Foster said...

I did one too Mary for the fun of it.

prairie mary said...

So where is it? Will you share?

Prairie Mary

Ryan said...

Nice. I need a break from the query/proposal headache. This is perfect.

Lance Michael Foster said...

Better get a move on. The sun would be up soon. Early bird gets the worm. He adjusted his socks, which were cutting into his ankles. He stood up, but left the paper for the next guy. Shoot, whoever it is might even be in a spot himself. Or herself. People gotta help each other in times like these. He lost his balance a little as he stood, but grabbed the back of the chair. He put his cap on his shock of white hair, got it to the right angle, something he had done since he was a boy, and then shouldered the dark gym bag full of his life.

No use getting distracted by the news, or getting upset about something you couldn’t even really understand, let alone do anything about. Keep on your feet, that’s the thing. Keep your head up. As long as you were standing, like they used to say in the service. Every day above ground was a good day. He grinned, pushed the door open, and strode out of Dunkin’ Donuts, nodding to the cashier, politely saying “Thanks!” as he went out. The cashier stared for a minute, then went back to stacking napkins.

Things were going to be okay. Nothing like a donut and coffee to start the day off right. Something about that nice hot caffeine and sugar to convince you that things were looking up. And he had found five leads in the paper this morning. One to sweep up in a garage, a couple of motel cleaning jobs, one at a burger place, and one telemarketing. Sure, no insurance or anything, but work is work, and any work is honorable as his folks taught him. He limped a little. Darned circulation. Good thing he had aspirin anyways. He felt for the bottle in his pocket to reassure himself.

Sure he was living out of his bag and in his sister’s basement. God bless her. Thank God. Sure he was sixty-three (sixty four in two months!), but he had always been a good worker. Just gotta keep on trying. Never give up. Sure, three years without a job now for the first time in –criminey, forty-two years? Sure, Trudy was gone. But best not to think of that right now. There was no use to it. His vision blurred and he cleared his throat. He had to keep positive. He had an interview lined up today too. So that was positive. The coffee and donut were darn tootin’ good. Real nice. They made good black coffee there, and you could get one free refill too.

He took off, tilting like a man on a heaving deck, towards the next stop. The traffic drove by in the blue predawn, and he blinked at one passing car, because for minute he thought he recognized his daughter. But it wasn’t her, and couldn’t have been her anyways. He straightened his shoulders and adjusted his bag. Better get a move on. Things were going to be okay as long as he kept on his feet.

prairie mary said...

Good work, Lance! And timely, too! Lot of people will think this is their story.

Prairie Mary

Ryan said...

Will tighten this up a little tonight and send it off. The newspaper and reflection made me think of a lonely old guy looking through personal ads.

Is there a place to send an MP3 Mary? I didn't see one.

Give This Man a Hug
By Ryan Chin

"Brown haired Becky" likes staying in bed until noon. "Short but cute Carey" likes cooking and long walks. "Holly?" Could this be the same Holly who told me she found someone? I exhale. The air grabs at my throat and my heart settles into an expanding void. It IS her; she was just being nice.

I flip to the next page finding solace in the newsprint’s aroma. I roll the corner of the paper between my thumb and index finger while scanning the next few personals ads. My kneading of the paper quickens and it softens between my fingers. I turn another page, and then another. These pages turn like blind corners. Maybe one day I will crash into someone: She will replace my blessed Karen, she will walk and laugh with me. How long has Karen been gone now? If any more air leaves me, no one will know I’m here.

I tip my mug and power through a slug of cold coffee. Normally, I’m done ‘looking’ before I need a refill, but not today. My reflection catches me as I stand and dig in my pockets for some change. I lean towards the glass rubbing and twisting my two-week old beard. The salt and pepper strands remind me of newsprint, smells like it too. After thirty years as a newspaper editor, ink runs in my veins. Karen used to tell me to shower as soon as I came home; ink was an odor to her not an aroma. My reflection ages with each twist of my beard--my reflection will not smile. Karen would tell me to shave; she hated facial hair.

I cut in line and flip a quarter and three dimes onto the counter. The barista nods and slides the change into the tip jar. As I make my way back to my seat, a man picks up my paper, frowns, and sets it back down. I check the date on the paper. Over two weeks old! That explains why Holly’s ad seemed so familiar. I step back and tip my mug; the coffee burns going down and I wince at the pain. There’s a newspaper stand and a bar down the street. The pain will be gone soon.

prairie mary said...

We've got a side event going here! Be sure to send your print story to http://www.npr.org/threeminutefiction. But it won't take an mp3. But it will send you an acknowledgement and you might be able to send an mp3 that way. It's what I did, but some techie might have yelped and closed the loophole!

Prairie Mary

prairie mary said...


Ryan Chin did a remarkable thing with his story! Added a sound track, added a photo. I'm in absolute awe!

Prairie Mary

bolanaka said...

Never, ever think you shouldn’t write. You are a very, very good writer and have a lot to tell. Please, please don’t give it up. I will cross all my fingers, toes, eyes etc that you get it all back. But, if you don’t, maybe wait a while and then get back to re-writing the lost part.