48 Hours and 1000 Words
Report on the NYC Midnight flash fiction contest
July 21st 2017
To write a story of 1000 words or less in 48 hours. To make sure you don’t cheat, the organisers send you your assignment one minute before midnight (US Eastern Standard time) on the Friday of the heat. They send: a genre, a setting, an object to be included in the story. You submit your story by 11:59pm Sunday.
Am I prepared? I’d planned to spend two days on a rehearsal story, using a randomly selected assignment from a previous year. I wrote the practice story, but couldn’t stick to the 48-hour time-limit – I got distracted by other tasks, worked on the story for an hour or so daily, spread it over five days and left it loose and barely edited, both from a sense that it wasn’t important and because I didn’t want to waste what importance it might have on a hurried redraft.
It was 5:00 in the morning (I’m in London, five hours ahead of New York City). I hadn’t slept well, partly from nerves, and I’d gotten up at 3:00 to eat and read in the kitchen. The assignment, when it came, thrilled me—I could hardly believe it was so apt:
Genre: historical fiction.
Setting: a university library.
Object: a microphone.
It was the conjunction of “historical” and “microphone” that got me – after all, hadn’t I often thought of writing fiction about famous musical figures? Fats Domino on the corner in New Orleans in 1949, or the Slits and the Subway Sect on tour with the Clash in 1977? But that “university library” threw a spanner in the works. Which bands went to university? (Many went to art school; maybe I shouldn’t have got hung up on that small difference.)
I scoured my memory. I went back and back. Fats Domino had appealed to me as a kind of creation myth: the birth of rock ’n’ roll. But I could go further, and bring in the university: Alan Lomax! There’s a great music library at the Barbican Centre, ten minutes by bus from our place in Islington; I’d go there next day and find a book on Lomax.
I went to bed overjoyed, yet with a sense of responsibility: “If I can’t succeed at this assignment, when can I succeed?” I slept a few more hours, got up and started researching.
I did a lot of research. The first day, apart from a handwritten improvisation without preparation outside a café in Dalston (my standard morning ritual: coffee, fresh air and notebook), I pretty much only researched. Watched an interview with Lomax – decided I liked him. Came upon, fairly quickly, the name of Zora Neale Hurston; decided she could be a focus. Scoured the web for more – discovered my eventual narrator Mary Elizabeth Barnicle. Scoured some more. Found little. Decided, given the lack of information on her, that Barnicle should tell the story. (I liked the idea that these women, who had helped in the education and development of Lomax, should get their own story.) Then I went to the Barbican to find the book, which had a whole chapter devoted to Hurston and Barnicle.
Later that day another improvisation: 150 words from Barnicle’s point of view.
That night I couldn’t sleep: my wife (desperate to dance for weeks or months now) had discovered a Berlin-themed nightclub in Kings Cross and decided she had to go there. Owing to that distraction / interruption and a small dog yapping in a neighbour’s garden, along with plain excitement, I didn’t sleep till 2:00 or 3:00. I got up about 1:00, had a bath, recorded an improvised monologue straight to my phone in what I hoped was the voice of Mary Barnicle. No plot, no scenes, no drama, just a voice. I slept five or six hours and started again.
Sunday: I ate, went riding, found a café, did my ritual. But – fatally? – I didn’t write, didn’t improvise, didn’t let my mind wander. I researched. In contrast to my practice story, which was all imagination, my Alan Lomax story was virtually not a story; nowhere but in terms of voice did I get creative. But though I’d approached the stories from opposite directions, the results bore one striking similarity: both meandered, both lacked strong through-lines; in neither one could I make things happen. And I wonder (as I’ve wondered, on and off, for years now): does this mean I can’t write fiction, or I can’t write one type of fiction? And more to the point, do I even want to write fiction (or that type of fiction) anyway?
So. I researched. I wanted to know more, to get things straight, to work out the before and after of what I presumed must be the focus of my story.
The library troubled me. My story didn’t have one setting, it roamed all over. Never mind, she’d write her narrative (a letter to Hurston) in the library; I’d work in some small hint of drama or scene in the library later, to further legitimise it as a setting.
I spent two hours on research, rode home, rushed lunch, didn’t stop to meditate (as if! – I haven’t meditated in two years) or to relax or to read an imaginative story to remind me what fiction is. I caught a bus to the British Library, keyed in my bath-monologue from headphones, researched some more and headed home at 5:00pm. Took a nap, got woken by kids and neighbours. Lay in bed, looked at Facebook, clicked a link on the dangers of distraction – and rushing – to the creative process. Tried to lie still, to still my mind, couldn’t do it, got up, ate, set up my laptop in the kitchen so as not to keep my wife awake, planned to stay up till 5:00am (the deadline) if I had to. Started writing at 11:00. Rewrote the whole story. 1350 words. Whittled it down. Got to bed at 4:30.
How’d I go?
It’s too early for the judges’ response (there are over 2000 entries), but in my eyes I failed. Of course I’m tired – I’m coming down – but this story is a turkey! I have the familiar feeling of not having realised my potential. Every time I’ve gone not-quite-prepared into a performance I’ve had this feeling. Even when I had seemed prepared – when I slaved over the mix of some music, for eg, only to realise after mastering how I could have improved it – often, from over-saturation (from an inability to “step back” from the work), I’d feel the same. This time, I think I dived in so hard I left no time or energy for play, for idle imagining. What point in another Alan Lomax story if, like the others, it sticks to facts? I’d thought simply channelling Mary Barnicle’s voice might amount to a refocussing. But I didn’t focus enough! I should have zoomed in closer. What happened between Zora and Mary? Why did they fall out? I could have shown it, the falling-out, and shown something about Alan Lomax in the meantime – something which might reflect on his legacy. No, maybe it wouldn’t have been accurate, but it would have shown him in a different light.
The story, I think, is a fragment, a dry run, another rehearsal. I was thrilled by the assignment because I sensed it would lead me closer to a place I wanted to go. I presume just this exercise has done that, has helped point a way forward. But just maybe, for the purposes of the competition, the assignment was too good: it threw up too much for 1000 words and 48 hours. The question is why did I enter in the first place? To win? Hardly – I know full well I’m no good at writing to order. To shake myself up, then? Maybe so. In which case, maybe Round #1 was a resounding success. I’m kind of dreading Round #2 though.
“Figment of the Air” – my story, with two-sentence synopsis. (Tip: Zora Neale Huston and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle called Alan Lomax their “boy”.)
NYC Midnight – “Inspiring challenges for storytellers”.