The winner of round three of NPR'S Three-Minute Fiction was announced last week. Sadly it wasn't me. But I enjoyed many of the selected entries, finalists and honorable mentions alike. I participated in rounds two and three, and even though my work hasn't been featured, it has still been a rewarding process for me.
How can I say that when I have nothing to show for my efforts? Simple. Unlike submissions to a literary magazine or publishing house, all these short stories evolved out of a single prompt. Round two was an opening line: The nurse left work at 5 o'clock. Round three was the evocative image below. All the potential writers were given the same handicap if you will; only skill and imagination set the entrants apart.
Having submitted my own story, it was fascinating and hugely instructive for me to read the selected entries, noting not just writing technique and word choice, but the writers' basic premise and how they negotiated the prompt in their work. Round three had far more entrants than round two, which means competition is only getting fiercer. Every literary/intellectual type out there thinks getting featured on NPR is the ultimate wet dream. I can only imagine the bar will be raised yet again for round four, featuring judge Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto.
I'll be entering no matter what, but here are a few caveats I'll need to keep in mind. Since this is now a hugely competitive contest, my work must be perfect if I'm going to hang with the alpha-dogs. I must also avoid the obvious interpretation of the prompt. Or if I do go with the obvious, I must give it my own patented twist. When we did round two in my writing group, everyone followed the nurse home in their stories, while only I stayed at the hospital. I'm not saying my story was more successful then the others, but I did something different, which can only help when you are competing against thousands of other entries.
When working on my round three entry, I kept seeing heartbreak and loneliness and all the sap that goes along with those themes whenever I looked at the picture prompt. I knew I couldn't write a story around those issues because it seemed too obvious. When I told my husband that, he said, "Well, you could go in the complete opposite direction and make a story about terrorism." After he said that, I couldn't get the notion out of my head. So my story became a what-if exercise exploring that idea. I also used 2nd person, a first for me, as a way to stretch myself. I knew my entry had shock value and a good energy to it, but I know my craft is still being developed and probably wouldn't hold up against the readers from the Iowa Writers Workshop NPR brought in to winnow down the entries... It didn't, but I am still proud of my piece because I stretched myself in the writing of it.
If you aren't pushing yourself or discovering something new every time you sit down to write, then you must ask yourself why you are even bothering.
Here is my entry for round three:
You have no idea. You only spy the discarded newspaper as you scan the café and think you’ve finally caught a break. After all, you no longer carry loose change and news racks don’t take debit cards. You thrill at the thought of getting something for nothing as you claim the stool so recently discarded and smooth out the newsprint in front of you. Despite your good luck, you still inwardly cringe at the residual body heat that confirms my existence at that very same table only minutes ago. You want my crumbs but you don’t want to have to feel grateful about it. But all that’s forgotten as you read over the headlines in a desperate bid to ease the comfortable monotony of your existence.
You don’t even pause to question what I was doing at that table before you walked in and ordered your skinny soy latte with an extra shot of fair trade espresso. I could be anyone: the jihadist next door, the cokehead in over his head, or the local crackpot who amuses and frightens in equal measure. I could be any number of people pushed too far who inhabited your space moments before. The newspaper is our only link, but you try not to think about that. It’s too intimate. Just as you avoid looking at the fingerprints stuck to the table. You’re not ready to acknowledge the world we live in.
Had you looked out the window instead of answering your cell phone, you might have figured it out in time. You might have seen the backpack shrugged off by someone who immediately fades into the mid-morning crowds. But you sit there and ruffle through the paper sections as if you hold the key to the universe at our little table. You won’t find the answers on inked newsprint, only yellow lies and agitprop. But you don’t realize that. When you hear the explosions across the street you still won’t understand. Not right away.
Not as chunks of concrete and twists of rebar fall from the sky. Not as I slide into a window seat on the city bus as it groans down the street and out of sight. Not as people cry out in fear or pain or disbelief. You have a front row seat to the destruction of what offends me most, and you can only gape and take a sip of your drink and think on how you’re going to get back to work. Only later will you realize luck had nothing to do with it.