ROW80 7/10, Short-shorts, and Emily Dickinson’s Ribs

One of the shooting place for Around the World...
Image via Wikipedia

It’s no longer Sunday where I am, so my report for A Round of Words in 80 Days is now late.

On the other hand, it’s Sunday somewhere, so no sweat. I have plenty of time.

(Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have written no sweat in anything but a letter to my nearest and dearest. And I wouldn’t have turned in an assignment, even a non-essential assignment, late. But twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have worn shorts to the grocery store, either, no matter the temperature. Things change.)

First the report:

I wrote another short-short story, shot for 200 words including the title, and made it. The plot already existed, part in a file and part in my head; finished, the story would have comprised several thousand words.

I’d intended to submit it last January to a contest for an online magazine. Unable to finish by the deadline, I set it aside and didn’t pick it up again. It was one of those things I could have worked on forever and never completed.

So, in search of a plot for a 200-word piece, I pulled up that one and stripped it to its bare bones.

The result was like an X-ray: for the first time, I saw the basic structure, what held the story together and kept it upright. Or what, in its previous semi-incarnation, didn’t hold it together.

In its earlier state, it meandered all over the place. Like what would happen if you removed the skeleton from a body: it takes more than a heap of muscle to get from here to there.

A word in my defense: I believe in over-writing. I start with some characters, a setting, and a couple of lines, and see what happens. I do not–cannot–know exactly what happens before it happens.

For me, writing is thinking.

But in this case, I had thought several thousand words. With that, I could start paring down.

Then, after letting the 200-word version sit for a day or two, I began to expand, a few words at a time. It’s now 250 words and, I think, fairly decent. When I finish here, I’ll e-mail it to my critique group for some less biased opinions.

Constructing the short-short was an exercise. I enjoy reducing word count, tightening the pieces I write. If I had time, I would cut this post. I may come back and tamper with it next week or next year.

Writing can be drudgery, but cutting is always reward.

In stripping away unnecessary words, however, I discovered an unexpected benefit: seeing the plot clearly will make it easier to write the story I’d originally intended.

If I ever write it. I’m so enamored with the undernourished version that I might leave it alone.

Another thing: I selected the photograph above because 1) it was one of the shooting places for the 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days, and 2) it’s in the public domain.

But as I typed away about bare bones and skeletons, I remembered Emily Dickinson’s poem about the train:

I like to see it lap the miles,
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step

Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare

To fit its ribs, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill

And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop–docile and omnipotent–
At its own stable door.

I read the poem to a class of sophomores when I was student-teaching, about a million years ago. We discussed Dickinson’s use of figurative language. The students were a savvy bunch and they had good answers and asked good questions.

One boy, for example, said, “What does it mean ‘To fit its ribs?’ What are its ribs?”

For me, that was one question too many. I’d never considered the ribs. I had no idea what the ribs were.

I stood before the class, mouth agape, understanding for the first time the true meaning of tabula rasa.

But before I could get a word out, another student said, “It’s the track.” Except the way he said it, it sounded more like, “It’s the track, dummy, can’t you read?”

I am indebted to those two boys: the answerer, for keeping me from looking like a dummy; and the questioner, for being a kindred spirit.

I addressed the “dummy” tone so the kindred spirit didn’t feel like a dummy. If I’d been teaching more than a week, I’d have said, “I don’t know. Anyone have an idea?” and delighted the entire class.

Kids like teachers who don’t know things.

A few years later, when I was “real,” a student wrote that I was the first of her teachers who had ever admitted being wrong. I suspect that was because I was the first of her teachers who was wrong. But however it worked, she thought the admission was pretty cool.

Having, like my unfinished story, meandered, I shall draw this bit of self-indulgence to a close.

Back to the report: Since Sunday, I’ve worked on the two short-shorts and finished editing the SinC Heart of Texas newsletter. And written this post. And tried to figure out Twitter.

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