LESS IS MORE
Short messages – say 140 characters or less – launched via bird. Sound like Twitter? Well, something like that.
I grew up in Sonora, a small town tucked into the central California foothills. My friend Boots Oller raised pigeons. Some were rollers. Boots trained them to soar upward until he clapped sharply. Then they fell from the sky, tumbling over and over, only righting themselves at the last moment to land atop their lofts. Spectacular.
Boots also raised homing pigeons that competed in long-distance contests. His favorite homer, Jack, had won a 200-mile race. Boots was always looking for opportunities to stretch the homers’ distances. When he heard I was heading to college in Los Angeles, 350 miles down California’s Central valley and over the Tehachapies, he asked if I’d help.
I packed my old VW bug for the trip, cramming in clothes, cowboy boots, psychedelic posters, guitar, flute, and a box of dried prom corsages. I left the back seat clear for the slatted wooden pigeon cage I picked up at Boots’ on my way out of town. It was filled with six of his finest homers, including Jack. My instructions were to stop every 50 miles or so and set one free.
Between launchings, I composed an ongoing story for the pigeons to carry. At each stop, I wrote the latest snippet with my spidery Rapidograph .000 pen onto a slip of paper the size of the fortune in a fortune cookie, then rolled it into a small capsule that attached to a bird’s leg. I already fancied myself a writer and my notes comprised a story of leaving home, traveling, and the birds themselves.
Following Boots’ instructions, I launched Jack last, setting him free along I-5 south of Bakersfield, about 250 miles from home.
When I got settled in my new dorm at Occidental College, I called Boots to see if the birds had made it back. All had arrived except Jack. He’s still out there someplace with that last piece of my story.
How many words does it take to tell a story? The six small “chapters” that flew via homing pigeon back to Boots suggest one answer. Ernest Hemingway had another. He was said to have won a bar bet by writing a whole novel with only six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”
There is a novel’s worth of meaning when you line those words up in that order. More recently, these six words launched a fad of six-word memoirs, but that’s a longer story.
Compression is what we’re going for when we write picture books. In the early 1990’s, we writers were advised to keep picture book manuscripts to less than 1,000 words. These days, it’s 500 words, edging down to 400. We strive to say the most we can with the fewest words. (I remember the flood of joy when I first turned from picture book writing to a middle grade novel project and realized I could use all the words I wanted.)
Less is more is what I’m thinking about today, stories whose meanings shine between the lines, stories where every word pulls its weight.
I think my shortest published story is one I wrote for the University Bookstore’s 100th anniversary book of 100-word stories, a tale that also involves birds:
TWO CHICKENS, A LOVE STORY
“Someday,” declared Jane. “Someday I will cross the road.”
“Why?” said Mavis. “We have everything we need right here.”
“I heard the nests are softer over there,” said Jane.
“But the pavement is hot,” said Mavis. “You could burn your feet.”
“And grubs are tastier.”
“Remember Norman Stottlemyer? He never returned.”
“And dustbaths utterly splendid.”
“Go,” said Mavis. “Just go.”
“Okay,” said Jane. “See? I’m putting a foot on the pavement.”
“Why’d you stop?” said Mavis.
“The other side’s so far away,” said Jane.
“Oh, all right then,” said Mavis. “I’ll come with you.”
“Thanks,” said Jane.
Mavis nodded. “Did you really think I’d let you go alone?”