Saturday, April 28, 2012

99 Words—That's All She Wrote

During the past week I learned that I won’t be teaching my class, “The Joy of Story,” this summer. I was sorry to learn this, because I enjoy the classroom, and have enjoyed for the past twenty years being a part-time teacher of creative writing here in Humboldt County, and before that in Santa Barbara. 

As I got used to the notion of not teaching, though, I realized I was also relieved. Having taught writing courses throughout my fifties and sixties, I now feel as if I’ve said all I have to say, and now that I’ve entered my seventies, my voice isn’t as strong as it once was, either literally or metaphorically.

Also during the past week I learned that our local free weekly newspaper, the North Coast Journal, printed three of my 99-word short stories in their Flash Fiction Issue. This was a boost to my ego, for though I don’t enter contests as such (I don’t believe writing is a competitive sport), I submit my work here and there from time to time, and it’s always a pleasure to see my words in print. We write to be read, after all.

It’s more than, or less than, a coincidence that I got news of my teaching career and my 99-word stories in the same week. I’ve been writing 99-word stories exactly as long as I’ve been teaching writing. I have used this art form as a challenge and a teaching device in nearly all the classes I’ve taught and workshops I’ve led.

As a reward to my students, for most of the years I taught, I published an annual anthology of student work. I invited my students to send to me their 99-word stories based on a yearly theme. Over the years I published little volumes of stories inspired by Snow White, The Trojan War and the Travels of Odysseus, Little Red Riding Hood, Pygmalion, Cain and Abel, Romeo and Juliet, Hamet, Pandora, Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, Alice in Wonderland, and Sherlock Holmes. (I think there were others too, but these are the ones on my office bookshelf.)

Spreading the art form of 99-word stories may have been my most significant contribution as a teacher. I gave writers a chance to see their words in print, and I let them learn the joy and power of economical writing. I also showed them how much our writing is inspired by literary archetypes.

So I have decided to devote one blog post per month to 99-word stories sent to me by my readers. This will begin in June, and the first deadline will be the first of June. The theme of the June 99-word story post will be “June Is Busting Out All Over.” Write a story about whatever that means to you: getting out of school, a wedding, graduating, being a father, or whatever else June means to you.

A few rules:
• One story per writer per month.
• It has to be a story. (Something happens to somebody.)
• The story must have exactly 99 words.
• All rights to the work remain the property of the writers, although I have no way of policing or enforcing that.

This is not a contest. I will include in my post all stories sent to me, unless I find them offensive (but I’m broadminded). I may do a bit of editing if I think it will help the story, and you’ll just have to trust me on that.

Spread the word. The more writers, the more stories, and the more stories, the better!

I will now close by showing off the three stories of mine that were printed in this week’s Flash Fiction Issue of the North Coast Journal. One is inspired by Hamlet, one by the parable of the Prodigal Son (or the life of Wyatt Earp), and one by a lesson I learned about love from my newborn son.

Gertrude’s Soliloquy

            My son and Claudius have never gotten along. I think the boy somehow blames Claudius for his father’s death. Crazy, but you know how kids are.
            Claudius suggested boarding school, and I went along with it. We were newlyweds, and a kid moping around the house is no aphrodisiac.
            But now my son’s graduated. He’s back, and he’s worse. And Claudius isn’t much better. He can be a real shit sometimes.
            “They teach you philosophy, boy? Zen? Existentialism? Nihilism? Ever think about nonexistence? Something you might consider.”
            Honestly, those two. They’re going to be the death of us all.

Letting Go

            Wyatt returned to the ranch yesterday, beat up, broke, smelling like a polecat. I told Morgan to quit early and fire up the cookstove.
            After supper, Wyatt told stories about rodeos, grizzlies, goldmines, and whorehouses. Morgan just sat there.
            This morning Wyatt rode off grinning, fifty bucks in his new shirt pocket.
“How long you reckon he’s gone for this time, Pa?” Morgan said. “I wisht he’d stay away. You never quit work early on my account.”
            I saw I’d lost another son. I pulled out another fifty and said, “Better saddle up quick. Maybe you can catch him.”

The Catcher in the Night

            He cried again. My wife groaned, “My turn.”
            “I’ll go. I’ve been awake since last time.”
            I grumped to the night-lighted nursery and leaned over the crib to change the amonia-perfumed diaper, then held his sobbing body to my chest, resting in a rocker. I promised to protect him from the cold attacking his body, and from all life’s slings and arrows, if only he’d let me sleep.
            Peace filled the room, the strongest feeling I’d ever known.
            We both slept in the rocker that night. Next morning, I was the one with the cold, and no regrets.


  1. John,
    What a fun post!
    My favorite of the three 99 word stories was the last one. I could "see" you in the nursery, rocking your son and I could "feel" the love and nurturing in that room.

    1. Thanks, Patricia. That story's a favorite of mine, too.

  2. What a great idea for future posts, John. I look forward to it, and like Patricia, very much enjoyed The Catcher in the Night.

    1. Thank you, Anne. I hope you'll send me a story!

  3. Friends, I forgot to give you my email address when I invited you to send me a story. Here it is:

  4. Loved The Catcher in the Night--brought a tear to me eye--and that's the best complement I can give a writer.


  5. Thanks for this post, John. I love your positive take on the class being suspended. More writing time - and more time to move forward with ideas like the 99-word stories. Since you're providing prompts (and I love the first one) it's still teaching; you still will have the influence on writers. I've already copied this blog and will take it to my two writing workshops this week (one memoir, one fiction/nonfiction). My students will love to send you stories. A local paper here has a 26-word story contest going on; lots and lots of submissions are coming in, according to one of the editors.

  6. Thanks, Eileen. I look forward to reading your students' stories.

  7. John, I think your voice here is very strong, heck if it were any stronger--I think we all would be flying in the air. I’m not trying to be clever, but to thank you for all the past post and I look forward to reading the 99-word stories and perhaps contributing.

  8. Thank you, Augie, and I hope you will contribute.

  9. John, not many writers can squeeze a lump in the throat into 99 words, but you did it.