A Writer’s Notebook: Prose haiku

Technically, this is just a very short short-short, the flashiest of flashes (to borrow a phrase from Rowan Atkinson in Love Actually), but I’ll explain below why I call it a “prose haiku.”

She sat on a thick window sill outside the store and tucked into tiny chicken wings, so small they looked like fried pigeon, wrapped in paper so greasy it looked waxed, even from way over here where I stood watching, across the street — it caught the light in ways no other paper would have. When she finished, she licked each of her fingers, rapidly down the left hand but slower, more ponderous, through the fingers of her right, and then she let the paper fall to the ground, and she let her head drop too. Those half dozen tiny chicken wings had been her only reason for leaving the house today, I thought, and now she was finished, not just with lunch but with everything.

I’m taking this exercise from a favorite source, Lori Ann Bloomfield’s blog First Line. About a month ago she posted a “random exercise” in which she described what she calls the “prose haiku“: basically, it’s a story in three sentences. It sounds much less rigid than traditional haiku — no syllable-counts to worry about here — but writing a story in three sentences isn’t easy. To get in some sense of story you keep wanting to write abnormally long sentences, yet even with these long sentences, I tried a few versions and kept wanting to add more. Writing a good story in only three sentences might be just shy of impossible, but I think it can be done. Even if it can’t, it’s still great practice, because it starts you thinking about what’s essential in a story — it forces you to strip a story down to its basest elements, and that practice can make even your longest fiction more concise. Besides, theoretically, any story could get told in just three sentences, because it gives you room for a beginning, a middle, and an end — an introduction, a climax, and a resolution. (I don’t know that any of those are in this story, but it’s a start–and this is just an exercise, anyway.)

If you wanted to make things complicated, you could start adding rules, like a five-word sentence, a seven-word sentence, and a five-word sentence; or a story that must revolve around the traditional Taoist theme of nature and balance. And maybe I’ll be masochistic enough to try it some day. But in the meantime, take a crack at your own three-sentence story and post it in the comments! I’d love to see your work.


(PS: My little vignette was inspired by a photo series I saw in an exhibition at the FOAM museum in Amsterdam, which I wrote about back in May. That series contained, I think, five pictures of this woman eating chicken, so it could be considered a kind of photo-haiku.)

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