Numbers

by Tucker Leighty-Phillips

There’s something I’ve always appreciated about writing. The more restricted I feel, the freer I become. There’s a reason prompts are so popular: They offer a sense of direction when the blank page can often feel directionless. It’s the Netflix problem. Sitting on the couch browsing through an endless list of options makes the choice feel impossible. I often feel this is true logistically as well; being tasked with a single-page story feels more doable than a twenty-page one. Perhaps this is borne out of dreading long-term papers in college, but I also believe it’s a sense of control over the piece. I like being able to distill the work down to a concentrated pulp, being able to see the entirety of its being in front of me in a single page. This relationship to the story gives me a sense of understanding, a sense that I’m seeing everything and missing nothing. 

In fact, I think this can be even further distilled. Zenique Gardner Perry’s piece “I was fourteen: a memoir” is a brief piece of writing that spans an expansive period of time –– a tactic typically averted in flash, in favor of the vignette-style or single-scene approach –– and builds the narrative by using only three-word sentences. In fact, the title is the only part of this piece that isn’t limited by a three-word count. This restriction gives the tale a unique internal engine, as she’s able to construct a variety of rhythms through monosyllabic words and phrases (“I was fine. Poor and black. Ninth-grade year.”) as well as more extensive sentences (“Golden paved paradise. Living for afterlife.”). In many ways, the content mirrors the form; we don’t stay too long in one moment or period of time, because the sentence is incapable of doing so. Some of the twists and turns in the narrative feel almost like a hedge maze, a feeling that the narrative can only go this way or that way, a left or a right, and the hard breaks of each period make each decision feel pointed and final. We are going deeper into the emotional center. But even in this bracketed approach, the repeated use of certain phrases and lines “Suburbs: better life. Who said that?” or “I was fine” make the piece feel cyclical, even trapping in form. I can’t help but wonder what this piece would look like without Perry’s formal restriction, or if she expanded or altered her approach. What does this story look like in four-word sentences? Six? Could she maintain this sense of content mirroring form if she were contained to fifteen-word sentences? 

Of course, this approach, when mishandled, could lead to droning. See Tuck Walk. See Tuck Run. See Tuck Cry. Etcetera and so on. Perhaps you’re interested in a fixed-form that doesn’t overplay its hand, that is a little more veiled in its word-count worship. In the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, Bruce Holland Rogers writes about his interest in bringing poetic formalism to the flash fiction space. 

“In the same way [as poetry], fiction writers can prescribe characteristics for a short short story before writing the story, either by inventing a fixed form or adapting one from poetry. How many sentences? How many words in each sentence? Must some word or idea repeat at intervals? Is there a point-of-view switch that has to occur at a particular point? A prose sonnet might consist of 14 sentences instead of 14 lines. Instead of end-rhyming, it might use internal rhymes. A prose villanelle could consist of 19 paragraphs instead of 19 lines and repeat phrases or themes in the same pattern the poem employs.” 

This isn’t dissimilar from what’s already been discussed, but he does offer a set form; what he calls the Fibonacci Sonnet, a two-paragraph story form based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers. The Fibonacci sequence, for the unaffiliated, is a sequence of numbers where each unit is the added sum of the prior two numbers, starting at 0 and 1. So the early stages of this sequence are as follows: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55. Oddly enough, those are the word counts for his first paragraph. Barring the zero-word opening line (although, the romantic in me likes to imagine there is an unseen zero-word opening line preceding every piece of work we create), this is the word count and build. The second paragraph, naturally, is the opposite. A down-swell. 55, 34, 21, 13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 1. And of course, the zero, the final unwritten line that says what goes unsaid, that leaves the reader feeling the cold breeze of the story even after the door has been shut. This concept is especially funky, because the word counts mimic the standard bell curve of a story, a building up and drumming down. This issues a challenge: where do you place the highest level of emotional fortitude in your piece? Do you use those meaty bits in the center, riding out those tiny sentences at the end to stick the landing, or do you work towards a “less is more” approach––giving those final lines a quiet sense of upheaval? Perhaps this is a space for play.

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