Q: How do you win a one-minute-story writing contest?

A: Take more than one minute to write it.

Depending on where you put the hyphens, it could be writing a story in a minute, or writing a story that can be read in a minute. This was the later. I won’t analyze the possible hyphen permutations now, although it’s a fun exercise if you’re a grammar geek.

Along with two other Michiganders (I reluctantly have to call myself that now, since I’ve lived here for almost 28 years!), I was honored to be selected as one of three winners of the Michigan Radio story-writing contest. Out of 175 entries, that’s not too bad.

The rules specified no more than 120 words—about what can be read in a minute. A friend suggested I enter. He thought my experience writing museum exhibit labels might be helpful. In fact, when I heard I had 120 words, I was thrilled. That’s almost twice as much as I have for most exhibit labels!

The occasion for the contest was the Michigan Humanities Council “Great Michigan Read,” a statewide program focusing on a book about, or written by, a Michigan author. Schools, book clubs, libraries, and other groups participate in readings, author discussions, etc. over the course of two years. The winners of the radio contest were selected in time for the finale event of the Great Michigan Read. The winners were invited, and in addition to good food and great beer, we got signed copies of the featured book, Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg. (If I’d known about it earlier, I’d have suggested a traveling exhibit to go along with the program. Maybe next time!)

The book provided the theme for the radio contest: “Hidden branches of your family tree: Unexpected stories that changed the way you think of yourself or your family.” Steve Luxenberg is an editor at the Washington Post. He read our winning stories at the event, noting that his journalists often turn in lengthy stories with this apology: “Sorry it’s so long; I didn’t have time to write it short.”

Of course Steve is right. When I’m bidding on an exhibit label writing project, I’m always reluctant to offer per-word pricing. You have to learn as much as possible about the subject, much of which will never make it into the label. But in order to choose which bits would make the best label, you have to have all the bits in your head. Then you have to focus on the most intriguing part of the story, and chose every word for maximum information and impact. Often that means editing it several times.

I thought it was interesting that all the winning stories set up the tale, but didn’t try to complete it. They tell about the moment of discovery with no attempt to fill in the blanks. The reader wants to know more.

My trick is to read it out loud before declaring a label complete. So the idea that these short stories would be read on the radio was intriguing. I’ll admit I was disappointed with the way it was read/recorded for the show. But I’ll link to it anyway, and print it below. My disappointment made me remember how critical an actor’s craft is to the success of a play or a movie. I read a lot of Shakespeare starting in 6th grade, but soon discovered that reading a play and seeing good actors perform it were entirely different experiences. The nuance, emphasis, timing, and gestures added meanings I never imagined.

I’ve been wanting to write some of our nutty old family tales for years, but I could never decide if they should be histories, fictionalized novels, songs, poems, or short stories. Well, I now have a start, thanks to Michigan Radio!

The Revelation

Portsmouth Ohio, 1951. Walking with his new wife, my father watched an older man shuffling toward them. As they drew closer, he saw a face partially paralyzed, tragic eyes, trembling hands. “Poor bastard,” he thought. “I wonder what happened to him.”

Suddenly his wife drew up stiffly. “Uncle Noah! It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!” They spoke quietly—pleasantries mostly—then Uncle Noah limped on. Uncle Jack. Uncle Hobart. But Uncle Noah?

Before he could ask, the woman who became my mother leaned toward him, eyes straight ahead, voice low. “They never did get the bullet out of his brain.” As if it were normal. As if he knew what had happened. And why.