Saturday, April 5, 2014

Thinking Inside the (Status) Box, a guest essay by Jo Deurbrouck

The story goes: Ernest Hemingway once convinced a group of dinner companions to bet him $10 each that he couldn’t write a story short enough to fit on a bar napkin.  Hemingway collected their money—and, I’d like to think, stood a round—after scrawling these words: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

The bar napkin story is probably a fiction, but that doesn't seem to impact its popularity.  Just now I googled “for sale: baby shoes,” and was rewarded with seven pages of Hemingway hits before the first Zappo’s shoe ad snuck in.

And whether Hemingway authored those six words, or you agree with me that they comprise a valid short story, the fact is that somebody wrote a famous piece that could both fit comfortably on a bar napkin and break your heart.  And if it fits on a bar napkin, it could fit into every one of the status boxes that pepper our various electronic screens every day and whose typical contents are far less memorable.

The phrase “status box” almost never appears, for instance, in the same sentence with the word “literary,” but why not?  It’s true that we tend to privilege long forms over short, but it’s also true that writers and critics have for at least a century admired tautness and understatement.  And there’s no denying that filling a status box is an act of publishing, something writers should take seriously even if many of their Facebook friends don’t.

I joined the status box world in 2009 when my then-agent said I needed a “platform.”  Social networking sounded like a waste of time, but I was in year seven of shopping a manuscript I could neither abandon nor sell.  I seemed to do nothing but waste time.

Today I’m glad I began typing words into status boxes, but not because it led to hard-won success for that book.  This isn’t that kind of essay.  I’m glad because forcing myself to think inside the box, to treat clicking “Send” as an act of publishing, has fine-tuned my writing.

That fine-tuning started back in 2009.  I was on Twitter one day trying to figure out what good I could give or glean in 140 characters when I ran into a microessay contest organized under the hashtag #cnftweet.  This contest was hosted by a magazine called Creative Nonfiction, which has been championing literary nonfiction since the early 90s—in other words, since long before it was cool.

Creative Nonfiction’s tweets read like a dare: Could we Twitter users create a new form, as abbreviated as the baby shoes story and as powerful, but true?  Apparently the answer was “Yes.”  That #cnftweet contest is still running today.

Late last fall a group of writers, me included, wrote a roundtable essay about these microessays for Creative Nonfiction.  (You can read it here.)   While we worked, the theme that resonated for me and that I came away wanting to tell every writer I know was simply this: there is value in seeking value in status boxes.

Buddhists try to incorporate the practice of mindfulness into as many aspects of life as possible.  What status boxes allow writers to do is similar.  I can work while walking by the river, or grinding coffee in my predawn kitchen, or sitting at my desk trying to resist the invitation to offhandedness that is the Facebook prompt, “What’s on your mind?”

What do I work on in these rescued moments?  First and foremost, irreducibility.  Combing a long essay for its last ounce of fat is a Sisyphean task, but an intensely-focused hour can produce a Twitter essay without a single unnecessary word.

Which brings me to my final point.  Striving for irreducibility is an end in itself, but it also teaches valuable lessons, among them the knack of sensing what must be said and what must not.

I have learned to observe my own mind as it leaps across the gaps between words and to imagine my reader executing the same leaps.  They should feel challenging, those leaps, not irritating or confusing.  Alighting at the end of a leap should feel satisfying, or fun, or surprising yet inevitable, and above all, rewarding.

This imagination exercise has taught me most of what I know about the power of the unsaid.  I’ve never seen a useable rubric for it sketched out in a writing textbook, perhaps because it it can’t be.  Perhaps we can only learn about leaps by leaping.

Ernest Hemingway liked to talk about how good stories are like icebergs, with the told story equivalent to the iceberg’s visible tip.  I wish I could say this made sense to me the first time I read it, but it didn’t.  In an essay titled “The Art of the Short Story,” he tried to elaborate: “A few things I have found to be true.  If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened.  If you leave out or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless.”

That didn’t make sense to me when I first read it either.  It does now.  I learned it in mid-leap, wasting time on Twitter.

Jo Deurbrouck is the author, most recently, of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award winner Anything Worth Doing: A true story of friendship, adventure and tragedy on the last of the West's great rivers.  Her essays, microessays and book reviews have appeared in many publications, including the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and Creative Nonfiction.  She is a former high school English teacher and river guide with an MA in English from Boise State University.  She speaks at conferences, bookstores, libraries and with book groups around the West.  Learn more about Jo at her website.

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