This is no. 37 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
When I was getting my MFA in fiction, one of my favorite professors asked us to write a story using only single syllable words. At first this sounded awful—how could we possibly pull this off? It wasn’t easy, but very quickly it became a kind of game to me, an obstruction that brought out odd new rhythms. When we came back to class and read our stories aloud, it was a revelation. Every single student had done something striking and compelling. The sentences were strange and clipped, everyday phrases made fascinating. One student had something like “he who taught us of the past” to stand in for history professor. In my story, instead of an electrician playing checkers, “the lights guy played reds and blacks.” The formal constraint forced us to go beyond the easy, obvious choices. My professor stressed that this was a starting point, something to unlock us; there was no need to stick to these rules in subsequent drafts. Later, when I was revising, I found that because the work didn’t sound like me, I could brutally edit it. Now, more than ten years later, if something isn’t working in a story or chapter, I sometimes fall back on the one-syllable trick.
The weirdest approaches to process are the ones I find most helpful—the ones that have stayed with me the longest. There was the professor who encouraged his classes to narrate problematic scenes from the perspective of inanimate objects, animals, or the dead. A friend of mine takes the articles out of any story or chapter that’s giving him problems. He usually puts most of them back, but something about the extraction lets him see the work differently. There was another professor who forbade us from using adverbs, or giving characters first names, or starting any sentence with a pronoun—I loved his bizarre rules, even when I decided to break them.
When I’m writing I sometimes consult this strange little deck of cards called Oblique Strategies. Originally created in 1975 by painter Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno—yes, that Brian Eno, immensely talented musician, producer, and co-conspirator of the late David Bowie—each card has a single directive printed on it, a “strategy” for your creative process. These prompts are meant to assist with removing blocks, but the Zen-like aphorisms are more abstract than prescriptive (i.e., “Start at the end,” or “Emphasize the flaws,” or really strange ones like “Remember a time when you hid from something as a child.”)
The deck my partner and I have at home is the updated 2001 edition, with a bizarre product description: “These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, and sometimes they were formulated. They can be used when dilemma occurs in a working situation…The card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.” These mysterious abstractions are part of the charm. There’s now a version of the strategies available for free online, although I still prefer the physicality of shuffling through a deck. Two cards I selected at random just now read: “Disconnect from desire,” and “Go slowly all the way round the outside.” It all sounds a bit wacky, and that's exactly the point. I find the further I lean into the weird, the easier is it for me to get back to work.
Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.