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.

On Dasher. On Dancer. On Prancer. On Vixen. On Dominick, on Snoopy, on Baron von Richthofen.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas here in the Angleton home. As is tradition for our family, we decorated the tree the day after Thanksgiving (alas, I missed out on all the Black Friday deals) and the Christmas geese are shining brightly in the front yard.

It’s also beginning to sound an awful lot like Christmas, as it has become our new tradition to crank up the volume on the Christmas iTunes list to sing and dance our way through dinner prep and homework in the evenings. My six-year-old has taken to shuffling through the songs to find what he most wants to hear, which means that we skip over Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and instead listen to Lou Monte’s “Dominick the Donkey” A LOT. It also means that homework is taking a little longer these days.

But I can’t complain too much because even though there are some great songs we’re missing out on, the kid has some pretty good taste. One that he has been particularly enjoying is The Royal Guardsmen’s 1967 “Snoopy’s Christmas.”

Both of my boys like this one, which makes a practical historian mama proud, because the song indirectly honors what has to be one of my favorite moments in all of human history. It’s a follow-up to “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” a 1966 release that tells the tale of Charles Schultz’s lovable cartoon beagle who in October of 1965 began fantasizing about engaging the WW I German flying ace often known as the Red Baron in a dogfight.

Snoopy as "the World War I flying ace&quo...
Snoopy as “the World War I flying ace”, flying his Sopwith Camel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Red Baron’s real name was Manfred von Richthofen. He emerged from the defunct cavalry division of the German Imperial Army to train as a pilot, apparently with a fair amount of natural talent. With nearly eighty confirmed kills and most likely over a hundred in all, he was the most successful fighter pilot of the war, becoming something of a legend to both sides of the struggle.

Of course because he is such a legendary figure, there is some controversy surrounding his eventual death. Richthofen was wounded and went down (remarkably gracefully, according to reports) over France on April 21, 1918. He died from the shot to his chest, moments after landing. The trouble is that it has proven difficult to know who shot him.

Manfred von Richthofen from Sanke card #450. T...
Manfred von Richthofen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The kill was long credited to Canadian pilot Captain Arthur Brown, but there is a good deal of evidence that the fatal shot came from the ground.  Several historians have assigned credit to various anti-aircraft gunners who were in the area at the time. Still others believe that it was in fact Snoopy perched atop his flying doghouse that drove the Baron to the ground where he survived the wound and went on to start a highly successful frozen pizza business.

The problem with that last theory is that if we assume a certain degree of historical accuracy in the well-researched work of The Royal Guardsmen, then Snoopy and the Red Baron met one more time, on Christmas Eve.

This encounter ended very differently than the first. The Red Baron had Snoopy in his sights and instead of moving in for the kill, forced him to the ground for a friendly Christmas toast, after which the two parted ways peacefully.

I regret to inform you that there is no record of this encounter in the history books, nor of a similar one involving Richthofen, but there is a truly wonderful occasion documented in the history of WW I on which primarily British and German troops fighting in the trenches of the Western Front called a spontaneous truce and celebrated together on Christmas of 1914.

Accounts describe German soldiers beginning to sing carols on Christmas Eve and placing small, lighted trees along the edge of the trenches. Soon makeshift signs expressing Christmas greetings and suggesting a temporary peace started appearing on both sides and by morning, soldiers emerged to cross no-man’s land and shake hands. All day (and according to some accounts, for several after) soldiers took time to bury fallen comrades, exchange small gifts, and even play football (soccer) together.

This “Christmas Truce” was not government sanctioned and in fact followed a flat rejection on both sides of a December 7th suggestion from Pope Benedict XV that a temporary ceasefire be declared in honor of the holiday. Of course eventually the fighting started again and the war raged on for four more bloody years.

Never again in World War I nor in any conflict since has a similar truce been effectively carried out, but for one brief shining moment in history, the commonality of basic humanity triumphed over the absurdity of war. And Snoopy and the Red Baron shared a Christmas toast. I think that’s something worth singing about, even if it means I can’t always dream of a white Christmas as much as I’d like.

Merry Christmas (Bing Crosby album)
It may not appeal to the six-year-old crowd, but it’s still the greatest Christmas album of all time. (Bing Crosby album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)