Paul Strohm and the Art of the 100 Word Story

Paul Strohm, former Garbedian Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, has written quite a few scholarly books, but he’s recently ventured into writing a memoir of 100 100 word stories.

His stories have appeared in Eleven Eleven and served as the flash point for this journal, so we sat down with him to discuss how the genre provides “a limit that inspires compositional creativity,” as he put it. To write in such a box forces choices that perhaps brings out the best in a story.

Why did you decide to start writing 100 word stories?
I was writing some memoir pieces and by their very nature they seemed to demand amplification, more and more detail. And so I decided to force my own hand by adopting an arbitrary limit.

What do you gain as a writer by the constraint of 100 words?
I saw a photography article that praised fixed-lens cameras for imposing “a limit that inspires compositional creativity.”  That’s what I think about an arbitrary length-limitation; it forces you to pick and choose among details and objects of notice, to make sure they’re earning their keep. And sometimes, struggling with the limitation, you find yourself backing into better stuff than you knew you had.

When I read your pieces, I don’t think about what is left out because they have a narrative wholeness to them. And yet the form speaks as much to gaps as to what is included. How do you view the fragmentary nature of these stories?
I’d rather read Sappho than Tennyson.

Is the form itself a commentary on perception or memory?
Well, memory is a big factor in the way I use the form (or as it uses me). But I’m not sure that memory is inherent in the decision to write to a stipulated length. I could imagine a 100-word story wholly devoted to present perception or to utopian speculation, for that matter.

What if a story begs for 10 more necessary, precious words?
No dice. The whole point about a limit is that it forces you to measure a new idea against what you’ve already written, and to make a choice. Besides, I’ve always thought that the stuff you’ve rejected doesn’t exactly go away; it still circles around your text—haunts it, if you will—as a kind of textual unconscious that enriches its meaning.

For more, read Paul Strohm’s stories:

2 Responses to “Paul Strohm and the Art of the 100 Word Story”

  1. steven beercock says:

    “I’d rather read Sappho than Tennyson” reminded me of Adrian Mitchell’s poem The Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry where he observes, “After that there were about
    A thousand years of Tennyson
    Who got so bored with himself
    That he changed his name
    To Kipling at half-time.”

  2. Fiacha says:

    Here’s my fragment!

    HIMSELF

    I still see him. Whenever I let my mind wander, he’s right before my eyes, moving with his unique lost-to-the-world grace, like he’s not here, in this dark, noisy, room, but somewhere…yes…perfect. He doesn’t move with skill or elegance. His gaze keeps prowling through the room, as barely touching the other dancers as his feet are touching the dirty dancefloor.
    The song begins and illuminates his eyes like long-forgotten candles inside his soul are being lit and I bear witness to the return of Faery into this cold clinical world right here, right now, right inside his eyes.

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