Just enough words

I wish I could do Merrilee Faber‘s and Jon Harahan‘s writing the justice they deserve this morning, but I just keep typing blather.

::pours another cup of java and dives in anyway, blather be damned::

Merrilee posted some of her clear-headed wisdom in A short story primer a few days ago. As usual, her ideas were directly on target. But Things to Remember stood out in purple neon to me for their simplicity:

  • Every time you feel the need to explain something, don’t. If it’s not obvious from the character’s actions or thoughts, it doesn’t need to be there.
  • Every time you want to describe the landscape in detail, don’t. If it’s not integral to the story, leave it out.
  • Every time you want to tell the reader how the character became the person they are, don’t. The character’s actions and words will tell the reader who she/he is.

I wanted to etch these reminders onto my fingernails to keep me from running off at the keyboard so much.

Instead, I read this story by Jon Harahan in the catalonian review that simply blew me away. First, because it’s good, and, second, because I’d just been thinking about economical writing and the unsaid. And this story was one of the best examples of getting across a huge amount of story without TELLING it that I’ve seen. Yup, this is exactly what Merrilee was talking about. Spare. Elegant. And just enough words (okay, Jon,  maybe you don’t need the ‘two’ in the sixth sentence — but that’s it…)

He said I could post it, so here goes:

No Complaints
by Jon Harahan

Listening to the radio is the only time of the day I can really enjoy myself. I sit in my car and listen. I am listening to a movie review about a movie I have no interest in seeing.

My peace is interrupted by a tapping on my passenger window. At first I see a stranger, but as my mind wakes up and my eyes adjust, an old friend is staring back at me.

We are both parked in this parking lot, in our home town, but for two different reasons.

It is cold out, and windy. I don’t want to talk long, but I get out of my car and we do anyway. My jacket is too thin. What do my friend and I talk about? Mainly he wants to know how my brother is holding up after witnessing a murder: My brother saw his own best friend killed.

“As good as can be expected, I guess.”

I am picking up food at my favorite pizza place. My friend can’t find a job after graduating with a degree in History. So he is in that parking lot to head inside the Marine Recruiting Center and sign up. Then he asks me how I am holding up. I had been standing on a bridge made of toothpicks and spit. My little bridge wasn’t holding up well, and his question was unexpected.

“Me? I’m great.”

My brother should be dead, too.

I try to talk to my brother about what happened, but I keep fucking it up. My brother is a junior in college. He was robbed of a cell phone, and his friend was robbed of $4.00, not including his life. My brother was pistol-whipped and ran. His friend ran, too. They were both track stars. They could each run a quarter mile in under sixty seconds. His friend only made it a few feet until he hit the pavement. My brother hit the pavement, too. But it was because he tripped. As he got up to continue, he left the skin of his hands and knees behind. His body replaced the skin with scars.

I am about to eat my favorite meal, and my friend is about to join the military out of necessity. I hadn’t been killed, nor had my friend. In fact, when my friend goes to open the door of the recruiting center, it is locked. They are closed. Considering all of this, I am fine.

Thanks, Merrilee and Jon. You both nailed it for me.

6 comments to Just enough words

  • I suspect that I should be working on short stories. Novels are…well, they’re rather long and require a whole bunch of commitment. Short stories are…well, they’re extremely short and attainable by the short-winded.

  • Wow – this really hits a home run with its story simply told. Thank you for posting it. The most explicit sentence is about standing on a bridge made of toothpicks and spit. You know what he is going through, even though it has never happened to you. Awesome!

  • To write with such brevity is a true challenge and one I hope to be able to aspire to, someday.

    There were several good pieces on the site by very talented writers and poets. Thank you for leading us there.

  • I am completely going to look over the “short story primer.” As you know, shorts are my “sweet spot” and I am trying to eat up everything I can on them. 🙂

    I loved John H’s piece. Such an economy of words. The tightness is perfect for the tension of the story. Thanks for sharing it!

  • Carlson

    Great story. It really brings out the writer’s voice and brings you into his world. There is an unbelievable amount of emotion which hits hard at home for all those who have lost anyone to tragedy or has anyone in the armed services. Love reading your work Jon. Keep it up.

  • Thanks for the shout-out, and great story. Very spare and tight 🙂

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