This post represents the first in a series of writing exercises that I’ve used, either in a writing course or on my own. Each post includes this disclaimer, a description of the exercise, and an example from my own writing. If you would like to try out the exercises on your own blog, refer to the exercise in the title and ping back to this post (if you have a WordPress blog). Or you may simply leave a link in the comment section so I and others can check out your work. Please feel free to comment on mine, also.
I took a flash fiction course some years ago with the venerable Barbara Henning (check out her bio over at the Poetry Foundation). One thing flash fiction teaches you is the importance of focus, something I confess to struggling with in my own work. If you know even a little about me, I tend to range far in wide in terms of subject and genre, both in my reading and writing. This is great in terms of providing multiple perspectives on subject matter and form, as well as learning the value of versatility.
But even in a long work of fiction, focusing on what a character is saying or doing, providing a strong sense of place, or slowing down action during a critical scene so the reader receives the full impact of that narrative moment is an important skill to develop.
In the interest of respecting the sanctity of Henning’s coursework, I offer a variation of the exercise, as well as the resulting flash fiction piece. If you are interested in using this prompt or would like me to read and share your work, please take a glance at the disclaimer above for instructions on how to bring your writing to my attention.
Exercise: Using an image, character, or plot from a myth (religious or otherwise), create or reinvent a story in a modern context. Write in any form you like (poetry, flash fiction, short story). Note: flash fiction word counts are traditionally anywhere from 50 words (microfiction) all the way up to 2000 words. I leave it to your muse to decide what you come up with.
The Fruit Stand
The fruit stand on Market Street opens at seven o’clock every Wednesday and Saturday in springtime. Percy loves nothing more than her fresh fruit. Well, fresh fruit and rest. She doesn’t understand how these modern people get by on so little sleep. It keeps them busy in the Underworld – don’t mortals know how dangerous it is to go around on only five hours of sleep each night? Just watching them scurry about is downright exhausting. There’s no sense of beauty in all that hecticness. They wear their fatigue like medals of honor, their deprivations as things to be proud of.
An image bursts into her mind. Apples. Percy is in an epic mood and apples fit the bill. Apples are big in the modern world. In ancient times, the preferred fruit of minstrels and storytellers was the pomegranate, or at least, that was the fruit assigned to her legend. But here, where everything appears to function upside down and backwards, the unglamorous, common apple stands for all kinds of things – wisdom, sexual pleasure, forbidden desires. The apple is everywhere, in multiple iterations. She’s discovered during all the infinite years of her existence that when people repeat an idea enough times, it gains the substance of credibility. Like the monotheism. Say it enough times and soon, entire civilizations end up jumping on the same band wagon.
Percy shrugs to no one in particular, apples on her mind again. The air is heavy with the smell of fructose and an underlying fragrance of rot so typical of all things mortal. She picks up a medium-sized, brown paper bag and puts two of the swollen, red fruit inside. An old farmer with deep, wrinkled jowls approaches like a coil of frigid air from the depths of a crypt.
“$3.00 a pound,” he offers.
“$3.00? You sell them as if you created them! $1.98. They’re in season.”
“They’re always in season, ma’am. And they’re organic.”
“Hmph,” she says, peering at the man with knowing eyes. “There are trace pesticides in the skin of this apple. And anyway, if these were really organic, they wouldn’t be in season all year-round. Still, I have sympathy for your paltry existence. I’ll take them for $2.00.”
The fruit seller wrinkles his nose at her. “Sympathy? Look, lady, I’m just trying to make a living here. What do you know about fruit anyway?”
Percy leans in, giving him a glimpse of her true form, if only for an instant – a field of spring wilting and blossoming under a benighted sky that is continuously rent open like the stone doors of a mausoleum. She reveals her rapacious husband, her howling, over-bearing mother, the conniving innocence that won her a throne. How good it feels to be herself.
“I, more than anyone in all of existence, understand the importance of taking in fruit.” She straightens, satisfied at the look in the old man’s cataract-glazed eyes, terror burbling beneath like volcanoes ready to erupt. “There, there,” she says, the hard tone of her voice now soft and lilting. She pats the old man’s hand, the skin the color of dirty, grey marble. He jerks back at her touch, crossing himself as he steps away from her.
“H-How…b-b-bout…y-y-you take…them…th-there apples…?”
“Why, I think I just might.” She picks up the bag, pulling out one of the objects in question, and folds the lip down to keep the remaining contents from spilling out. “Everybody’s just crazy about apples, aren’t they? Apple pie, apple juice, apple fritters…apples, apples, apples.” She stuffs the bag in her giant purse. “But I can appreciate why people love them. That’s how my husband seduced me, you know. With fruit, I mean,” she says cheerily, taking a perverse pleasure in the way the man tries to shrink into invisibility behind the stall. “I was young and my mother was all wrath but I knew what I was doing.” She slings the bag over her shoulder. “Things aren’t ever the way people say they are.”
She stands solemnly before the old, trembling gentleman, as if ready to salute him. “If I like them, I’ll be sure to come back.”
She turns in the direction she came from and takes a greedy bite of the crisp fruit, ignoring the chemical tang, savoring its delectable sweetness, the binds to the wretched, dying earth tightening with each drop of sticky juice.