Last summer I decided to return to the love of my youth, creative writing, but I quickly discovered that my imagination is not so easily re-engaged. It’s sort of like going off to college when one of your best friends has to stay home and go to community college. The first few times you return home for weekends or holidays, the two of you get together, but after a semester or so, you don’t even bother to call her anymore because you’ve moved on to bigger and better things, and she’s still stuck living in her mom’s basement. Then, twenty years pass, and you run into her and discover that she became a cardiologist or a city councilwoman or a best-selling author. You say, “Gosh, it’s so good to see you again. Let’s have lunch!” And she responds with a satisfied grin, “Wish I could, but I just don’t have the time.” Yeah, that’s pretty much how things stand with me and my imagination. She won’t even have lunch with me (although she occasionally likes to wakes me up in the middle of the night to toy with me and leave me exhausted the next day).
Despite our struggles, when I recently heard about a short story writing challenge from another writer I know, I thought it sounded like a good idea. My imagination won’t have lunch with me, so I’ll enslave her. That should work!
The contest has three rounds. The writers are put into “heats” of twenty or so and given a genre, subject, and character, and a week to write a 2500-word short story. Eventually some number of stories will be chosen from each heat, and those writers will go to round two where they are given a new genre, subject, and character and three days to write 2000 words. In the final round, a smaller group will do it all over again in 24 hours and 1500 words.
Saturday before last, when I received my genre, subject, and character, I realized just how bad this idea was. Crime caper, bankruptcy, gardener. Crime caper? Seriously? All I could think of were Carl Hiaasen novels and Pink Panther movies. I imagined Flannery O’Connor in another heat. Southern gothic, road trip, grandma.
I spent the first four days of last week alternating between desperately trying to beat my imagination into submission (“forget lunch, you bitch, we’re writing a short story!”) and coming up with justifications for blowing the whole thing off (“if they had given me something reasonable like they gave O’Connor, I’d write the shit out of this story!”). Mid-week I finally got my imagination to cooperate long enough to write a story about a vineyard owner coercing his gardener into helping him with a wine forgery to avoid bankruptcy. If you read it, you certainly wouldn’t think it was the best story you ever read. Heck, you probably wouldn’t think it was the best story you read this week…unless it was the only story you read this week. But nevertheless, I’m proud of it. It has all the assigned elements and clocks in at 2498 words. More importantly, it’s evidence that my imagination and I have a chance at reconciliation. We’re going to start with an occasional lunch, and maybe someday we’ll be best friends again.