That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Chances are if you’ve been to a circus at some point, you’ve seen people risk their lives. It’s part of the thrill of the show. There are fire-breathers, lion-tamers, high-wire walkers, and sword swallowers to name just a few.

And while the circus used to be primarily about tortured exotic animals, unfortunate human oddities, and psychotic-looking clowns that haunt our nightmares, at some point the attention shifted to more and more dangerous performances of highly skilled human oddities as they defied the kind of grisly deaths that haunt our nightmares.

One of the turning points for the circus came in the middle of the 19th century when a young Frenchman named Jules Léotard went swimming in his father’s pool in Toulouse. A skilled gymnast, Léotard swam a few laps and then thought he might have more fun at the pool if he swung above it. He rigged up a series of apparatuses resembling dangling pull-up bars and began swinging, launching himself from one to the other. Soon he was performing elaborate acrobatic maneuvers above the pool.

Jules_Léotard
Jules Léotard and his bulging muscles. Fetch the smelling salts!

And a terrifyingly dangerous circus act was born.  Léotard performed on the trapeze above straw mattresses in his home town and soon he found himself flying above large crowds in Paris and London. The practical, tight-fitting costume he designed both for flexibility and for making the ladies swoon at the sight of his bulging muscles, came to be known as the leotard. And that song about flying through the air with the greatest of ease? That was about Jules Léotard, too.

Today the flying trapeze is an iconic act in the world of the circus performances. And it’s one of the reasons I won’t attend a circus. Now I don’t care much for the animal training or the clowns, either, but I really really don’t like to watch people risk their lives for the sake of my entertainment. It’s just not my thing.

But I am fascinated by the performers who do it. So a few months ago, I wrote a little flash fiction piece about a circus acrobat performing on the trapeze. I entered the story into a contest sponsored by the group Wow! Women on Writing. And the story won third place, which was very exciting. If you’d like, you can follow the link and read “The Greatest of Ease” and some other lovely flash pieces on the Wow! website.

Then, if you’re a really super amazing person, you can also check out an interview with me that was posted on the Wow! blog earlier this week. In it I talk about the story, about my forthcoming novel, and a few other writerly kinds of things.

I hope you will find it entertaining, because though it would be pretty cool if someone wrote a song about me one of these days, this is pretty much as close as I ever plan to get to risking my life for the sake of entertaining an audience. And I think it’s also unlikely I’ll ever wear a leotard in public. Because that’s the kind of thing that haunts my nightmares.

No Room for Swirls

At the end of a narrow hallway, tucked into the corner of my basement is a little hidey hole of a room that I have claimed as a writing office. One wall has been covered with chalkboard paint thoroughly graffitied with story ideas. On the other walls hang a bulletin board plastered with notices of submission deadlines, a white board scribbled with possible blog post topics, and above my desk a beautiful photograph of an Oregon Iris given to me by a dear writer/photographer friend.

In the little wall space that remains, just above a bookcase that holds more thesauruses than any one person needs, must have, requires, has an occasion for, or isn’t able to dispense with, hangs a collection of framed quotes about writing by writers whose work has been meaningful to me from Snoopy to Mark Twain.

A master at work. Now that's a great first line!
A master at work. Now that’s a great first line!
photo credit: collectpeanuts via photopin cc

One of the quotes is from James Michener who once said, “I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” As a writer who loves to read and write historical fiction, I most appreciate Michener for the depth of his works which reach beyond character, through generations, and across large expansions of time, to tell the story of the setting itself. There aren’t a lot of authors who have done that, and none more successfully than Michener.

Of course, it takes a lot of words to do it. Michener’s books are long and swirly and tangly and not for everyone. But I appreciate them because he so boldly leaves nothing out. And it works.

But there’s another approach to writing, one that is more streamlined and maybe more widely appreciated. It’s represented perhaps best by the also highly quotable Ernest Hemingway who once said, “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

Anyone who has read Hemingway’s work knows that he pretty successfully did just that. He didn’t invent brevity in storytelling (it predates him by an awful lot of human history and oral tradition), but he did play an important role in the emergence of the short short story through the 20th century and into the 21st..

Today’s writers who are hip to the lingo generally call such stories flash fiction, a term that refers (not so precisely) to stories up to 1000 or sometimes up to 2000 words and down to as few as six.

That’s right. Six WORDS.

And this is really why Hemingway gets so much of the credit because he wrote (or didn’t write) the first six word story, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. If you don’t believe that, you’re not alone. The rumor, which can be traced all the way back to 1991 (and you know that anything that comes from 1991 is too legit to quit), is that in 1961 Hemingway was in a restaurant with a group of writer friends when he bet them $10 each that he could write a complete story in just six words. They had to cough up the cash after he wrote on his napkin: “For Sale, Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Dang! That is six words. Who do you think you are? Hemingway?!
Dang! That is six words. Who do you think you are? Hemingway?!
photo credit: JD Hancock via photopin cc

The biggest problem I see with this tale is that I don’t think anyone would be stupid enough to engage in such a wager because if a writer brags that he can come up with a six word story you can be pretty sure he’s got one in mind. The slightly smaller problem is that the event is basically unsubstantiated. Oh, and there’s evidence that the story existed in various forms well before Hemingway. Still, it’s nice to think he wrote it because it does illustrate his approach to writing.

As a reader I can appreciate both wordy authors and succinct ones. As a writer, I fall somewhere in the middle on the Michener/Hemingway scale. I love the swing and swirl of words and I will at times be unapologetically verbose. But some stories just want to be simple and it can be a fun challenge to put together a piece of flash fiction.

One such work of mine, a story entitled “Blue” has just this week been published in the online magazine 100 Word Story. As the name suggests, the works featured are exactly 100 words long. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for swirls. I hope you’ll follow the link and read not just my story, but also take the time to peruse and appreciate a few of the brief works of some talented writers who slaved away in their hidey holes to trim away all those swinging, swirly tangles of words.