We asked four authors to write a short piece of fiction in a single night: starting at dusk, and submitting by dawn. The idea began with Danny Denton and I thinking about Franz Kafka’s ‘The Judgment’, which Kafka claimed to have written in a single night. (Cathy Sweeney’s essay on the story, published in Issue 44, prompted our chat.)
The last few years, writing fiction has scared the shit out of me. I have been afraid to just sit down and write a story. Instead, I’ve taken refuge in what I thought was editing, but was actually a fearful kind of second-guessing and compulsive ruminating. Unchecked, ‘editing’ became for me a chronic defence-mechanism, a knotted means of avoiding the essential creative encounter with Not-Knowing.
So in an act of projection, I wondered: what would happen if writers were forced to not over-think, to not over-knead the dough, to just write a story straight through? I emailed four authors and asked: ‘If we supply a prompt, will you write us a story in a night?’ In retrospect, I am both surprised and not-surprised that they all agreed to give it a go.
At 7pm on the agreed evenings, I sent the authors the following instructions:
We want you to write a piece of fiction (up to 2500 words, approx) that includes at least four of these five words:
You are welcome to pluralise or change the tense/form of the words (e.g. rivers, burying). There will be an opportunity for a light copyedit (fixing up typos, etc), but nothing substantive can change from first draft. Your deadline is 7am tomorrow.
Up until this point, the authors had no idea what form the prompt would take. Danny and I liked the idea that they’d each receive the same five words. We wondered: where would these words take them? By what logic would they seek to connect the words? Which words would they choose to omit? Using all the same ingredients, how different, how similar, would their dishes taste?
To find these five words, I invited Cathy Sweeney to flick through her pages of ‘The Judgment’ and drop her finger on random points and tell us where it landed. I then asked Danny Denton to name the images that came to his mind when he thought of ‘The Judgment’. I chose two words from each of Cathy and Danny’s selections: bed, buried, river, father—then I just felt we needed one more word, a word from outside of the world of Kafka’s story. I hummed and hawed for a suitable method, but in the end I just chose the word on the tip of my tongue. I didn’t overthink it.
You can read all four stories in our Winter 2021-22 Issue, and listen to interviews with the authors about the process here and here. (The podcast is in two parts.)