Laurie Berry, author, sat down at her word processor and started to write. “Peter has just returned from Mexico, where his face turned the chalky pink color of Pepto-Bismol,” she began. “Rachel is at that swooning stage of love, stupid with happiness at his return.”
From that idyllic beginning, her story about a yuppie couple’s life in a Houston barrio moves quickly along—very quickly along. Peter and Rachel talk, drink vodka, have doubts, have dinner, have sex with the windows open. And then, as all good stories must, it ends. It ends, in fact, after a mere 252 words, and it has just beaten more than 1,600 entries from every state and about every nation in the English-speaking world in the annual World’s Best Short Short Story contest, sponsored by Florida State University.
Jerome Stern, 50, an English professor at FSU, began the contest four years ago. It is not, he insists, a gimmick. “It gets people writing instead of watching TV,” he says. “You don’t have to wait until you retire to write the novel you’re never going to write.” As for the truncated form, Stern cites such illustrious forebears as Aesop’s fables, the Parables and the Grimms’ fairy tales. “If you only have one page,” he says, “there’s no room to miss; every word has to count.”
Berry, 32, a divorcée and an English lecturer at the University of Houston, says she didn’t even write her story, titled “Mockingbird,” with the short short story contest in mind. In fact it was originally eight pages long. Then she began revising it, and it kept getting shorter. “I looked at it and thought it was a really nice, lyric piece of work, and it’ll be in the bottom of my drawer and nobody will ever see it because it’s so short.” Then she heard about the contest and began cutting some more. In the end she met the contest rule that the entire story not exceed one double-spaced typewritten page of “about 250 words.”
For her minimum opus, Berry became the recipient of some coveted prizes—a $100 check and a box of Florida oranges, to be delivered after the harvest in November. “Mockingbird” will also get a page in Sundog, FSU’s literary magazine. There’s no talk of movie rights.