Each Sunday in the Zoetrope Virtual Studio's Flash Factory office, you'll find a number of its 200+ members responding to either Frank Sullivan's or Richard Osgood's "Five-To-Fifty" challenge: "From these five [prompt] words create a fifty or fifty-five word masterpiece." This past Sunday morning (July 19) at 9:53 Frank posted his five-words chosen at random from the dictionary:
Frank ended the challenge with this note to those brave and awake enough to take it on: "Admittedly a strange group of words, but that's what the Muse revealed. Have at it, if you will. Good writing!"
The idea began, Frank says, because "he was looking for a way to motivate people to write. Prompts, in general, do that. It's what The Flash Factory is based on. The 5-To-50 was meant as a quickie. Something that folks may not need to invest so much time in, if they couldn't participate in the longer [writing prompts], but would still get the writing juices flowing."
"The thing I've come to appreciate about the micro form is the economy of words; you need to say what you're saying without any chaff. I find, also, that it oftentimes elicits humor, maybe because of the brevity. It's quick and it's fun!"
Helen was a crackup. She'd spoof everything from Maoism to Taoism to Communism to Nationalism to Imperialism to Capitalism, all in one politically charged gesture. And she'd make it funny. Drinking an Old-Fashioned, she'd hold court like Gertrude Stein. She was intrepid, and the economy of her words was renown.
-- Frank Sullivan
Flash Factoryite Sarah Black, of Bannock Street Books, likens the prompt to "working a puzzle, a jigsaw where you move the disparate pieces into a coherent whole."
For Elizabeth Creith, the micro form appeals to her miniaturist nature."When I was a printmaker," she says, "I did tiny engravings, sometimes an inch square. When I was a potter, I made buttons. When I discovered the fifty-five word flash--which was my introduction to the whole concept of flash fiction--I was delighted. Here was another miniature to learn!"
The "game" aspect of the prompt keeps her coming back for more. "Taking these words and trying to make a story that has the four elements and is entertaining, maybe clever, maybe humourous or memorable. This is not my favourite of the five-to-fifties I've written, but there were phrases in it that struck people as witty and well-crafted, so it's good. When I've thought about it for a few minutes--usually five to ten--I find a way to fit the words together in a theme. There's always a word that doesn't quite fit with the others. This week it was 'crack-up.'"
"Before my meltdown, crackup, whatever," she said, "I tried every faith--Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Taoism, even been a pagan. Ditched 'em all. There's a certain economy in old-fashioned atheism. Now all the god-botherers are after me; ecumenical assassins everywhere. I live undercover, an intrepid apostate."
-- Elizabeth Creith
Jim "Nooner" Noonan sees within the micro the challenge of the "tiny canvas and in the case of the FF prompt, the puzzle aspect of rearranging the random prompt words until a story appear--like magic!" He's also discovered "writing exactly to the limit adds to the puzzle-challenge aspect of it."
"Impatience" draws Dawn Allison to the form, that and the challenge of "full story, few words." For her, the micro fiction piece lies somewhere between the fewer words of flash and the "more sense" of the prose poem.
How the Mogul Fell
It wasn't the economy. Not Taoism, though in stylish New York circles, that's what they whispered. Easier to believe that he suffered a crackup, that some religious sentiment drew him in, ended his intrepid mission for more. Not for any god did he forsake his wealth, but for old-fashioned love, for an impoverished girl.
-- Dawn Allison
That challenge to "create something worthwhile and complete with a minimum of words" also attracts writer Teri Davis Rouvelas. Certainly, each writer brings his or her own sense of purpose to the task also, as in Teri's desire to "see if [she] can draw something from inside [herself] from a list of words."
"We need an economy based on Taoism," Brad says. His gleaming Intrepid surrounds us like a python.
"You need an old-fashioned blind date," Maggie had said.
But I'm still dissecting the lyrics to "Stairway to Heaven" in a '76 LTD when my husband's final crackup was a million light tears away.
-- Teri Davis Rouvelas
Lately, more often than not, Richard Osgood provides the Sunday prompt. Richard recently traced the history of this Flash Factory activity.
"It all started with an eight-word prompt from Frank selected at random (that part remained consistent throughout) but at that time, it was not to create a fifty word micro but anything one could come up with. The date was December 20, 2006. At that time it was called 'Word Game' and it continued (on and off) until May 2008. As it matured it went from eight words to seven words to six words until, on May 29,, the first challenge to create a fifty-word micro appeared in a thread titled 'Random Richie's Five Word Fiesta.'"
"For me," Rich says, "the goal of fifty or fifty-five words is something that can be accomplished in a day and it's something anyone in the Factory can do. This is not to say a fifty-word (or fifty-five word) micro is easy to write, because they contain challenges not found in longer work, but like others said, it's like a puzzle, and why let the New York Times hog the rights to a Sunday puzzle?"
To crackup the gaze of pity eyes, she rides a chair to Camelot. Intrepid wheels steer an arm-powered course through forgotten, old-fashioned humility. Economy of motion, obstacles broken, burdens shed, a taoism operetta of husbands and sons herald her way through forest and field to romantic interlude everlasting.
-- Richard Osgood
It's not only the challenge of writing micro fiction that each participant must rise every Sunday morning to meet, but also that of reading and (gently) critiquing each entry. Each writer/reader brings his or her own aesthetic to a piece. Elizabeth Creith, for example, likes "to see a story, not a vignette or an unplotted poetic musing." She looks for that, and "for correct word use, something that tells [her] the writer either knew the words or looked them up if she didn't." She adds, "Wit, humour, a twist are good, but not necessary."
Jim Noonan "reviews micros, if review is the right word, more for the enjoyment of seeing what someone else did with the prompt words." He feels "it illustrates the power of words to inspire and the diversity of inspiration."
"Textures, senses, flavors" catch Teri Davis Rouvelas's attention as a micro reviewer/reader, as well as "where the writer is taking [her], who they're introducing [her] to, and most of all, does [she] get a sense of fulfillment from the piece, or does it seem more like a beginning or middle."
So what can we all take from the Sunday endeavors of this committed (or soon to be committed) group of micro enthusiasts? I'm so glad you asked! For me, it's their ability to view each writing challenge as wondrous, to embrace process over product, to compete without competition, and to challenge themselves each week to find meaning among five words that, more often than not, have (very) little business hanging out in the same condensed space.
Another Sunday. Another puzzle. This time it's Richard Osgood providing the challenge and the message to all who might take him up on it: "Have fun!"