Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Paul Strohm and the Art of the 100 Word Story

If you want to know about masculinity, music, and aging (and more), then Paul Strohm is the guy to turn to.

The Bay Area scholar, author, wit, and bon vivant has just published a series of exquisite shorts—stories of 100 words that perfectly capture the telling turns of his life, whether it’s styling his childhood friend Billy’s “carroty hair” or partying with the Pixies.

Each story acts as a snapshot, a pivot that defines the act of memory in dashes of details, episodes rising with cinematic and often ribald ironies. While there is a certain trendy novelty to genres such as the six-word novel/memoir or Twitter stories, I find that these forms often rely too much on a joke, a gimmick, or just make little sense (although I like Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes, never used.”)

With 100 words, Strohm manages to stretch out and truly evoke a moment, if not spin a yarn, while maintaining the nuanced hints that are crucial to such a short form.

Strohm is working on a series of 100 of the shorts, and having completed 99 of them, he published nine in the California College for the Arts lit journal Eleven Eleven.

Since the stories are short, I’ll quote the story “Meeting Girls” in its entirety:

My high school friends and I were afraid of girls but thought we should be meeting some. Wilbur (‘Stiff Sheet’) Coultis—a.k.a ‘Coitus’—claimed he knew how. Under his supervision, we went cruising every Friday night in Martin’s Nash Rambler. Seeing a girl walking, we’d slow the car so Coultis could roll down his window and shout ‘Yo, Snatch!’ before we sped away. Our friend Valentine pointed out after several weeks that this wasn’t working, and proposed ‘Hey, BeeBay!’ with no better results. Back at Martin’s we smoked cigarettes and complained about no luck. But that became Valentine’s nickname: ‘BeeBay.’”

Millions of words have been written about this topic, but what more do you need to know? Many a man has cherished such painful, anguished bonding (although mostly in retrospect), and we can only hope our techniques improve with age. But probably not much, as the story points out in the second, more tender, yet still misguided advance.

Strohm is most known for his scholarship. He’s Garbedian Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and has published books such as Social Chaucer. But let’s hope we see the other ninety 100 word stories from him soon.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Writing Tip No. 647: Never Try to Please the Boss

I guess one can consult the Greek oracle on this one. Know thyself. Sounds easy, but most of us spend a lifetime reaching and dodging and jumping through hoops and doing deep breath exercises and throwing the occasional punch (if not tantrum) in pursuit of such solid ground.

Becoming a good writer is akin to becoming a good human being in so many ways, after all. So here's a good quote from Chuck Palahnuik, he of The Fight Club (because it's all a fight).

As a writer, I felt compelled to toe the publishing line until I realized I was flushing away all my free time. I was starting to really hate writing. It looked like just another f---ing job where I was trying to please some boss. There had to be a way for writing to be fun.

So he wrote The Fight Club.

It sounds so simple, huh? Be playful. Know thyself. Don't answer to anyone. Write like a kid, a madman, a dancer, a clown. Search for meaning on your own terms.

It doesn't matter if you're writing Moby Dick, Waiting for Godot, or Jack and Jill. It's the same tip. Never try to please the boss. Kick the boss out of the house.

Put up your dukes.

Click here to find  out more!