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?