Short game

Chico State prof spends a year on self-imposed writer’s discipline of 52-word stories

COUNTING HOUSE Professor Rob Burton rose each morning at 5, spending about an hour on each of his 52-word pieces written over the course of a year.

COUNTING HOUSE Professor Rob Burton rose each morning at 5, spending about an hour on each of his 52-word pieces written over the course of a year.

Photo by Tom Angel

Close to home: The Chico News & Review, as do some other alternative newsweeklies, publishes an annual issue featuring stories of just a few words. Ours is called Fiction 59 and is in this very issue. A piece by Rob Burton was most recently included in Fiction 59 in 2000.

It was about self-discipline, finding a way to be succinct, concise and deliberate without giving up the freedom and creativity of writing.

In mid-1999, Chico State University English Professor Rob Burton assigned himself a project: Every morning, for an entire year, write just 52 words on a subject of his choice. What followed is a collection of 365 short pieces organized into 52 topics. There are seven entries for each topic, and the topics range from heady bits like “Epiphanies” and “Nowness” to antitheses like “Saints” and “Sinners.”

Is this scholar of multicultural literature really anal, really creative or both?

“I wanted it to be as ritualistic as possible,” says Burton, who found that the project made him pay more attention to the world, his own words and the craft of writing in general. “This whole activity helped me to find a voice.

“There’s a lot of volume, there’s a lot of noise, a lot of excess words circulating,” he says. “Readers don’t want that. Readers don’t need that.”

At first, Burton didn’t expect his writing routine would culminate in a book. But as he progressed, and especially after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he starting thinking, “Maybe it is worth going public with this.”

Around the World in 52 Words: Ritual Writing for This New Millennium came out just a couple of weeks ago, printed by Stansbury Publishing in Chico.

Some of the entries are lighthearted, while others are deadly serious, with themes of war and peace and the social inequities both in developing countries and here in the United States. Most are thoughtful and reflective; a few come off as quick and fun.

“I do see the book ultimately as a celebration,” Burton says. There is both pain and joy in the world, and by capturing a topic succinctly and suggestively, he hopes he can inspire readers to reflect and perhaps go off on their own literary journey.

If, as post-structuralists tell us, the signifier (a sign-system used to convey meaning) is ruptured from the signified (the meaning itself), what role does the narrator of a story assume?

Should she take pleasure from disrupting narrative order, or from constructing a narrative shape that, in turn, gives pleasure to the reader?

(June 25, 1999)

There was this storyteller, see, who was savvy enough to know that popular taste determined commercial success.

What the people wanted in a story, he realized, was a mixture of religion, royalty, sex, mystery and high drama.

So he wrote: “My God!” exclaimed the princess, “I’m pregnant. I wonder who did it?”

(Nov. 30, 1999)

‘It was almost organic,” says Burton, who never suffered writer’s block. His greatest fear going into the project was “that I would dry up before the year was up, or I’d run out of stamina … or ideas.”

Burton says he was never tempted to rewrite any of his pieces beyond the day he came up with them. He took about 20 minutes to “hash out” his subject of choice. Then, he’d spend the next half-hour feeling like a sculptor. “I would have the 52 words chiseled out, and I’d never have to go back to it again.”

Even the chiseling, which might sound methodical and counter to the idea of creative writing, was revealing to him. “The revision process is equally as important as the first splurge,” says Burton, who found himself “in that juxtaposition between structure and flexibility,” almost as if he were writing haiku.

After a while, he was hitting the word count right on.

Why 52 words? “Fifty-two just seems natural,” Burton says, “because of course, 52 weeks in the year.”

Typically, Burton would rise at 5 a.m., read the morning paper and reflect on what he wanted to write about, based on his pre-set list of 52 topics.

“Maybe I’d had a vivid dream that night or read about a tragedy in Kosovo, or an image just popped into my head,” he says. “There’s a lot of flexibility in this structure. It was fairly easy to do.”

Sometimes—as in a piece on gods and goddesses—he’d research a subject for some time before tackling the entry. Most often, he says, “They didn’t come off the top of my head.”

He never missed an entry, although he was a little thrown the two times he crossed the International Date Line and lost or gained a day.

As for the structure of the entries—fiction or nonfiction, full story or not—Burton didn’t box himself in. “Sometimes I left it hanging. I didn’t feel I needed a resolution every time.”

He didn’t feel pressured to make every entry a deep commentary. Some share his views on HIV in Africa or gun control; others fall into the categories of “Jokes” or “Riddles.” He reads a lot and travels, but Burton said the main thing was paying attention to what was going on in the world around him. “It just seemed natural. It’s part of the business of having our antenna buzzing.”

The streets downtown are busier with young people; there are noticeably more cars on the road; the restaurants and bars fill up once again; and the neighborhood party-scene swings back into action.

Yes, the university students have returned to Chico, ready for the beginning of the first semester in the new millennium.

(Jan. 22, 2000)

“Marijuana is an evil in American society and a serious threat to people.” So says a federal judge while sentencing a user to prison.

In China, Fulan Gong, the breathing and meditation sect, is outlawed and its followers arrested.

Why, I wonder, are such simple pleasures demonized as enemies of the state?

(Aug. 8, 1999)

Burton’s Trinity Hall office is, naturally, lined with books. But there are also posters of the British claymation characters Wallace and Grommit and a paperweight that’s half Margaret Thatcher, half Winston Churchill.

Burton came to the United States in young adulthood and carries a British accent. He feels an affinity with such authors as Salman Rushdie and Amy Tan who are “caught between cultures or are able to straddle more than one culture at a time.” Sometimes, he says, such a situation is painful, but that can be translated into pleasure and privilege.

Snapshots from childhood:

· walking on the Malvern Hills

· watching cricket-matches in Worcester

· consuming tea and chocolate biscuits at school

· moving houses from Worcestershire to Somerset

· riding my bike to Wiveliscombe

· eating fish-and-chips on Fridays

· singing Christmas carols in the school chapel

· playing cricket on the village green

· celebrating in the pub afterwards.

(Aug. 15, 1999)

I was conceived in Africa, born and raised in England, and have spent most of my adult life in the U.S.A.

For the past decade, I have lived in northern California.

I float between cultures.

At times, I feel I belong nowhere.

But for the most part I feel I contain multitudes.

(July 15, 1999)

This week, Burton is in Virginia, helping out his family—to the nth degree. His older brother, who has a family of his own, is suffering renal failure and could really use a kidney transplant. “The idea of him being on dialysis for the rest of his life just didn’t seem fair,” Burton says. “We did a lot of sharing [as children], so it only seems fitting that we share a kidney.

“Just like I did for the book, I’m preparing for this in a fairly disciplined way.” Burton has stepped up his exercise routine and has set up a way to keep close contact with his wife and 15-year-old daughter while he is back East.

These are the types of activities I have invested time and energy in for the first 40 years of my life: building a family and a home, reading books, writing fiction and nonfiction, teaching college students, playing soccer on Saturday mornings, running on Sunday mornings, flying both ways across the Atlantic.

(July 19, 1999)

He is tall and slim with a chiseled face like George Orwell’s (minus the moustache).

He has dark hair, blue eyes, and a pointy nose (broken in a soccer match yet subsequently repaired).

He likes to wear Scottish sweaters (Shetlands) and English shoes (Clarks) and American blue jeans (Levis).

This is my self-portrait.

(April 15, 2000)

One of the 52 ‘themes” in Burton’s book is “Miscalculations.” That, he says, is because, “I was close to finishing it off, toward the end of March [2000], when I realized I was one off.” So, he had some re-arranging to do.

He doesn’t miss his morning ritual of writing 52 words, but that may be because he’s replaced it with a new project: writing 75 words a day for 75 weeks. It was inspired by the California energy crisis, and he’s calling it 75w—the “w” being a reference to both words and wattage.

Sure, he could keep a daily journal—and he has, for much of his life. “The problem of journals is you never know when to stop. You can go on writing and writing and writing, and you never know when to stop, especially if something is bugging you.”

One of them pretends to be a boy so that she can go to school.

The other pretends to be a teacher so that she can pursue her studies and become a writer.

They are 10 and 11 years old, respectively.

Both girls are resisting Taliban-imposed restrictions placed on them in Afghanistan.

(March 10, 2000)

When a person you like and admire switches their point-of-view from what they said a year ago, or five years ago, he/she is seen as wise, sensible, and utterly pragmatic.

When a person you dislike does the same thing, he/she is seen as a downright liar in the habit of breaking promises.

(Feb. 23, 2000)