A few weeks ago, Electric Literature sent me this email:
Want to collaborate on a story with Aimee Bender? Now’s your chance.
Inspired by the Surrealist word game Exquisite Corpse*, Electric Literature invites you to help compose a collaborative short story. And Aimee Bender is writing the first line.
The Exquisite Shorts project uses Thubscribes.com, in which up to 100 people will compose a short story in 300 character segments. After Aimee Bender begins the tale, we’ll hand it over to the hivemind. The story won’t end until the 100th entry is written. Please, join in and add your own twist to the tale.
On Wednesday, Nov 17th, at 10 EST, the composition begins!
* Exquisite Corpse is game where each writer can only read the last word given, and adds one word to a sentence.”The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine” (Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau) was the first sentence ever created using the game. (In our experiment, you’ll be able to read the whole story before adding your part.)
So, on Nov. 17, I logged onto Thumbscribes. Aimee Bender’s entry was first: “She was startled by what she saw on the bridge; it did not seem to have a shape, and yet it was moving toward her, and she found herself inexplicably compelled to stay put.”
There were about forty entries after that. By the time I finished reading, I didn’t know what to add. The main character (who remained unnamed throughout all 100 entries) smoked a cigarette and pined for a missing toe, all while standing on a bridge. I had to wait for “AliAli” to finish before I could contribute. I was writing another story at the time and it seemed like several minutes passed until the following appeared on the screen:
48. The foaming dervish materialized next to her. “Might as well jump,” he said, shapeshifting into David Lee Roth for one horrifying moment. “Go ahead and jump.”
I stared at the screen for a long time, trying to think of how to follow that. In the meantime, “allrayxcity” had started typing.
49. Where was her mother when she needed her? She wasn’t a big fan of Mr. Roth’s music. Why was he here? She got out her cell phone. She had never known who her father was. Roth did have quite the pelvic tilt and her mother had been a cigarette girl at Starwood Club in 1976 when he was discovered.
As much as I like that song, I was glad David Lee Roth had been more or less written out of the story. Looking back, I suppose I could have done more with the paternity-related question. I should probably have done something with the cell phone. At the time, I was thinking about how so many people were waiting to shape and direct this character. I also felt like only a few people had done the setting justice. So, I wrote:
50. Seagulls wheeled in the sky. She looked at the water below. The wind picked up, and her limbs felt heavy, waterlogged. The wind tugged at her clothing, blew the fabric tight against her body. There is so much desire in the world, she thought, and for this moment she was at the heart of it.
I should pause here to say that I’m a big fan of Electric Literature. They have a sensible business plan (print on demand, publish the journal in multiple electronic formats) and they have a genuine respect for writers: they pay contributors (a lot), publicize literary events, and they’re doing exciting digital work with their sentence animations and a mysterious video game project. There’s something playful and optimistic about the journal, and they’re doing it all with style.
At any rate, the collaboration with Aimee Bender was fun. I didn’t really know what to expect. I was happy to sit back and watch after my entry, and at times, it felt like watching a tug of war play out as different writers tried to hijack the narrative. There was a strange accumulation of objects near the end: a giant mirror, poisoned cigarettes. At any rate, here’s my attempt to form my favorite entries into a coherent narrative:
1. She was startled by what she saw on the bridge; it did not seem to have a shape, and yet it was moving toward her, and she found herself inexplicably compelled to stay put. (by Aimee Bender)
2. She counted things to calm herself. Streetlights almost hidden by fog: 3. Parked cars tipped sideways: 2. Fat shadows so close you could touch them and feel their breath: 1. (by Ian)
5. It was madness to come here, she knew. Yet, she’d been compelled to answer the phone. To obey that seemingly familiar voice charred with static. To agree to this place and time. (by Matt Mullins)
11. It’s a funny thing, fear. Curiosity mixed with repulsion. In the dark, on the bridge, her body electrified by fear, she called out. “Hello?” The air felt hollow with words in it. (by Anna)
29. “You wanted to meet. Here I am,” she said. The figure shuffled toward the bridge rail. “It wasn’t my fault,” he said. He grabbed the lamp post and pulled himself up on the rail, and balanced there like a tightrope walker. “I had to make a choice. It had nothing to do with you,” she said. (by Christopher Johnston)
50. Seagulls wheeled in the sky. She looked at the water below. The wind picked up, and her limbs felt heavy, waterlogged. The wind tugged at her clothing, blew the fabric tight against her body. There is so much desire in the world, she thought, and for this moment she was at the heart of it. (by me)
52. She should have listened to her mother and gone to college. No matter how fun the party, don’t be the one left when the lights come on. Her lasting memory: one friend after another packing up their bedroom. She’d actually waved goodbye from three driveways. What had she been protecting by staying? (by Gabrielle)
59. So the last time she had tried had been… well, some time. Several years, three hairstyles and eight nervous habits ago. It had been Autumn, a russet, windy autumn, and she’d been babysitting a friend’s purple cocktail the last time she had tried. (by Fiona Wright)
60. The friend never came back, so she just took care of the cocktail. And then she felt lonely, so she drank another. And so on. She was supposed to let someone complete her and she ended with finding herself doubled in the mirrors, and everybody else was doubled. (by Chiara Reali)
97. There was something uncanny about the figure. Something almost too familiar. Her hands trembled. She was drawn to the figure, as if by some strange gravity, as if the figure itself was a black hole, and her entire life she had been drifting, unknowingly, towards its terrible center. (by Requiem102)
100. The fog peeled back and her father stood tall arms open to embrace. She stepped forward then stopped, “Why am I letting him in?” Her feet picked up the pace, her heart & head followed, her arms fit through his like a tongue & groove carving. “This time let him stay.” (by Dindy)
The entire story can be found here.