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Short-short memoirs — learning by imitating

As soon as I read Bruce Holland Rogers’ “Dinosaur,” one of several pieces in an advertisement for a literary magazine, I wanted to copy it. 

Marge Barrett
Marge Barrett

Writers learn to write by reading, studying authors’ subjects, structures, speech. They imitate and model. Writers also learn to write by practicing, creating their own characters, forms and rhythms of language.

As soon as I read Bruce Holland Rogers’ “Dinosaur,” one of several pieces in an advertisement for the literary magazine, The Sun, I wanted to copy it. Although it’s a fictional story, I use it in my classes as an example of a 300-word memoir. What about you: would you like to write a short-short memoir? Go ahead; have some fun.

Next week: the Short-Short Contest’s 3rd place winner.

“Dinosaurby Bruce Holland Rogers

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When he was very young, he waved his arms, snapped his massive jaws, and tromped around the house so that the dishes trembled in the china cabinet. “Oh, for goodness sake,” his mother said. “You are not a dinosaur! You are a human being!” Since he was not a dinosaur, he thought for a time that he might be a pirate. ”Seriously,” his father said to him after school one day, “what do you want to be?” A fireman, maybe. Or a policeman. Or a soldier. Some kind of hero.

But in high school they gave him tests and told him he was good with numbers. Perhaps he’d like to be a math teacher? That was respectable. Or a tax accountant? He could make a lot of money doing that. It seemed a good idea to make money, what with falling in love and thinking about raising a family. So he became a tax accountant, even though he sometimes regretted it, because it made him feel, well, small. And he felt even smaller when he was no longer a tax accountant, but a retired tax accountant. Still worse: a retired tax accountant who forgot things. He forgot to take the garbage to the curb, to take his pill, to turn his hearing aid on. Every day it seemed he forgot more things, important things, like where his children lived and which of them were married or divorced.

Then one day, when he was out for a walk by the lake, he forgot what his mother had told him. He forgot that he was not a dinosaur. He stood blinking his dinosaur eyes in the bright sunlight, feeling its familiar warmth on his dinosaur skin, watching dragonflies flitting among the horsetails at the water’s edge.

“Frog” by Marge Barrett

When she was very young, she’d hop around the house, hands on the floor, eyes bugging out, tongue darting, ribbit. “Heavens, Margaret, get up, you are not a frog,” her mother said. “You are a little girl.” Since she was not a frog—free to jump 100 feet or catch bugs with her long and sticky tongue or sing so she could be heard for miles—she thought for a while she was a princess. “Honey,” her father said, one day after piano lessons, “what do you want to be? A teacher? A nurse? Do you want to work with me in insurance?” She wasn’t sure. Maybe a secretary or a stewardess.

In school they encouraged her to become a teacher. For a long time, she reigned in classrooms. From a towering condo near the Mississippi River, she also wrote about her life and all its riches. Then she began having trouble with the computer, hearing her students, and remembering what she’d just told them. 

One day in early spring, exhausted, on a walk along the river, she forgot what her mother had told her. She plopped down on a park bench and planted her feet, splayed like webbed claws in her boots. She bent over, tucked up one knee (the other needed to be replaced), opened her eyes wide, (lifting heavy folds of skin), unlocked her mouth, breathed deep. She extended her liver spotted hands over all she saw: the city with its buildings and bridges; shores of tall grasses and trees; islands of sedge and shrub; swimming ducks, flying geese. A dancing damselfly. She leaped up, bounded over the bank, to rocks, logs, and the water beyond. Ribbit. 

Marge Barrett has published prose and poetry in numerous magazines. A former editor of River Images for the St. Croix ArtBarn and faculty advisor of Ivory Tower for the University of Minnesota, she has taught in various high schools and colleges. Currently she teaches at The Loft Literary Center, where she’ll offer another ‘We Like Short-Shorts’ class this winter/spring session.