Write in chalk on a fence, in crayon on lined paper... let go and write! It's only 10 words. (Photographs by Marylin Warner)

Write in chalk on a fence, in crayon on lined paper… let go and write! It’s only 10 words. (Photographs by Marylin Warner)

The cover page of the private book I put together of Mary Shepherd's poems, stories and essays.

The cover page of the private book I put together of my mother’s poems, stories, illustrations, and essays.

Dear Mom,

When Dad was in the last years of Alzheimer’s, remember how I used to search for very short writing contests that would help us “keep the pen moving” during that hard time?  I remember finding a flash fiction contest—a story or poem of no more than 200 words—and since I was coming to visit you several weeks later, when I told you about it over the phone, we agreed to each have an entry ready for the contest when I arrived.

I wrote an odd dream-like story—it was 199 words, counting the title–and you wrote several Haiku poems on one topic and called it a narrative Haiku; your word total was something like 87 words. Neither of us entered the contest, but we had great fun reading our writing attempts to each other.  At your suggestion, we even “illustrated” our stories with colored pencils and crayons, which was really a hoot.

Sometimes that’s what writing is: accepting a challenge or pursuing an idea, doing the writing and rewriting, meeting a deadline, and then celebrating the process alone or with a fellow writer. You and I celebrated by going to the White Grill and laughing over coconut cream pie…and we also brought back pieces for Dad and his caregiver, even though they hadn’t written anything.  We were feeling generous.

Even though you like to have me read to you, Mom, you’re not interested in writing any more. But I still perk up every time I find a short-word-count writing contest with no entry fee and a great prize for the winner.  And guess what I found last week?  A 10-word writing contest!  Really!  How hard can it be, writing ten words? (Not easy, actually. They have to be the right words, but come on, step up to the plate, batters!)

I love the premise.  Supposedly, Ernest Hemingway won a bet by writing a short story of fewer than ten words. His was only six words:  For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

When I taught my Writing To Publish classes for high school seniors, I assigned them to write their own six-to-ten word short stories.  Some really loved the challenge. Others hated it.

Love it or hate it, it’s a creative mind-boggling, teeth gritting, writing activity.  It’s a challenge.

Gotham Writers is again offering its 10-word short story contest.  Last year’s winner was Ingrid Bohnenkamp of Springfield, MO.:  The city burned. Alice lit up, watched. She’d quit later.  One of the finalists I really enjoyed was by Dan Moreau of Chicago: The inmate always called, wrote back, easily her best boyfriend.

The entries are submitted online by May 5, 2014, so you don’t even have to pay postage. There’s also no entry fee.  Only one entry per person.  For full details and prize:


What do you think, Mom, will any of our friends enter the contest? I hope so.  It’s not like they have anything to lose, and there is a lot to gain. If they do the work and meet their deadline, they can go out and treat themselves—and maybe their friends who also entered—to coconut cream pie!

"10 words" ~ written in Colorado snow.  It's been a long winter... ;)

“10 words” ~ written in Colorado snow. It’s been a long winter…

Ten Words?  That's the number of fingers on two hands. Count'em. You can write ten words?

Ten Words? That’s the number of fingers on two hands. Count’em. You can write ten words!



Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, Fort Scott Kansas, Mary Shepherd's poetry, memories for great-grandchildren, writing exercises

93 responses to “TEN WORDS

  1. Such a fun idea – a 10 word short story – I have to have a go. I’m not sure about the coconut cream pie though. Mum and I didn’t do that but we did word games – anagrams and the like, to keep her thinking. I still have some bits of old envelopes with her writing on the back, words she had listed. I hope you have kept mum’s short stories.

    • Yes, I definitely have kept them, Andrew. I have her big “Writing Box” with folders of rough drafts, final copies, and cover letters of her poems, stories and illustrations, articles and essays. I also have scraps of papers I found tucked in books and purses, also note cards and envelopes with ideas jotted down.
      It’s the stuff of memories, and even though she has dementia and doesn’t remember, it’s what I share with her great-grandchildren so they know how wonderful her writing was, and how much she loved it.
      I hope you do try the 10-word contest, Andrew. It really gets you thinking in a new way–kind of frustrating, actually–but also fun.

      • I can get down to 7 words, Marylin, staying on the theme of dementia:…


      • Pardon me for butting in – but Andrew – enter this immediately – it’s brilliant!

      • Have done, Jenny. I hope this does not count as having been already published.

      • Yea, Andrew! Now the contest has your time-stamp.

      • Well, you could ask Marylin to delete it!


      • Andrew, your 7-word entry is excellent! But sssshhhh. You don’t want someone else reading it and then entering it.
        It really is very good. Enter it now, so the date will be attached to your entry. You don’t want to have it floating around out in the e-universe and have someone else claim it.
        Also, when you enter it, I recommend using the title “Dementia” since you have extra words.
        Together, it’s perfect!
        Go! Go! Go!

  2. You include so much on each post, Marylin: photos, quotes, and writing challenges. In fact, I am including Anais Nin in my February Purple Passages post. And I seem to remember the one by Hemingway, but not sure though.

    The ten-word writing contest really appeals to me. Thanks for highlighting it today. I always learn something from your posts. Merci beaucoup!

    • You’re very welcome, Marian. I’ve been freelancing and teaching writing for a very long time, and in the final analysis, writing is lonely business. However we can assist, inspire, support and encourage each other is good for all of us. And contrary to skeptical beliefs, it keeps the creative aura strong instead of dividing and deleting it.
      Go for the 10-Word goal, Marian!

  3. 10 words or 6 words; that’s a real challenge, especially for a wordy person like myself! But it is good for the brain, that’s for sure.

  4. Ogden Nash has written quite a few short poems. Eg:
    Reflections on a Wicked World
    Is Obscurity”


    Reflections on Ice-breaking
    “Candy is dandy
    But liquor is quicker”

  5. Another wonderful letter to your mom. Thank you for sharing, Marylin. Quite a challenge to write a story in six words or ten, but it looks like fun. So I will check it out myself as well.
    groetjes, Francina

    • Thank you, Francina. I remember all the times, years ago, when my mom would have listened to the rules, thought about them, then would have picked up her tablet and started writing words, scratching some out, trying again, and so on. Now she can’t, but it makes me so happy to know that others will be trying the contest. The tradition continues!

  6. Wow 10 words only. Thats hard. I like your cover page, is the baby in the picture you?

  7. I have read the EH story and remember thinking WOW at the time. The winning entry from last year is memorable, too. This makes me think that such an exercise would make a great first line exercise to a book or chapter. There are several first lines I love, however when I think about it, they are longer than ten words. Thank you for the ample notice and heads up on this challenge. As I carry my writing journal around, I will dedicate a page to jotting down thoughts, images.

    • Excellent! A friend emailed me that for only 10 words, why did they give such a long time to write them. Well, as you know, sometimes the words come easy, and sometimes very hard. Getting the right 10 words written might actually take until the deadline! We just have to keep trying until we get them right.

  8. I love this kind of challenge – we tried the six word challenge after looking at some famous ones – Hemmingway’s included. My favoured word count is 300 – still a flash but probably three paragraphs. A blogging friend of mine recently published her collection of seventy five stories, all just seventy five words long. Yours is a great challenge and I shall probably give it a go.
    It’s lovely that you were able to share such moments with your Mom, even if now she is just content to listen.

    • Seventy-five stories, each just 75-words. WOW! How cool is that!
      I belong to NLAPW, National League of American Pen Women, and years ago I began a writing contest in our Colorado branch to raise money for scholarships. It was Flash Fiction, but the word limit was 100 words. We received some staggeringly wonderful 100-word short stories for each contest, year after year. I love what the creative mind can do with the unexpected.
      I’m glad you and I both told Andrew to get busy and submit his story NOW, Jenny. It’s very good, and unfortunately, there are writing thieves out there.

  9. Ten words…my mind is racing! I may have to take you up on the challenge Marylin! Another fabulous post! Have a warm and blessed weekend! Robyn

    • This is one of those times when you poetic writers have the advantage, Robyn, so I hope you will take the challenge. If you go to the web-link, you can read a list of other finalists, too, but I think your ideas would be uniquely yours…and therefore wonderful!

  10. Poignant and beautifully written, Marilyn.
    My goodness: a story in only 10 words? and I thought writing tweets was difficult!!!

  11. Thanks for this. I entered the competition right away. What a coincidence you leave the Anais Nin quote. I recently commented on a blog crediting Gertrude Stein with a quote on a symphony – now I think I had that wrong and it was actually Anais Nin. I shall be scrambling through books in April to find out for sure. Memory plays tricks. What lovely games you and your mother enjoyed. Crossword Puzzles and scrabble were my mum’s favourites.

    • We did have fun with writing challenges, Rod, and for several years after my dad died, it seemed to help Mom. Then the dementia won out. But I still have great memories of it, and that is how I’ll help my grandchildren remember.
      If you do find that my Anais Nin quote is wrong, PLEASE let me know! This is one of my favorite writing quotes, and I want to get it right.

  12. It’s wonderful that you and your mother were able to share those writing activities, followed by the necessary celebration. Ten words – to me it seems impossible! I can’t even write flash fiction, let alone ten words! Maybe this should be one of my future challenges…

    • You have until May, Andrea. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing challenges, it’s this: once your mind locks on and plays with the possibility, you’ll be amazed at the results!
      And yes, you can always celebrate the “trying,” even if you don’t end up doing the “entering.” It’s a win-win, Andrea!

  13. Amy

    It’s so wonderful to know that you are keeping your mother’s writings. Thank you for sharing the sweet memories of writing with your mother.

  14. Don

    Love the idea of those short short stories Marylin – marvellous. That one by Hemingby is superb.

    • Thanks, Don. So…do you think you’ll try the 10-word challenge? You don’t have to tell us, and I don’t want you to share it online where someone might decide it’s good enough to “borrow” and submit, but you might have fun with this.

  15. You’re an inspiration, Marylin, again, always. I never enter contests, but I might make an exception for this one. (No entry fee–what’s to lose?) Thanks for this.

    Have I told you lately how much I appreciate you?

    • Oh, Tracy, that’s so sweet! I appreciate you, too, and still have copies of some of your wonderful weekend travel “where to stay and what to eat” blogs, and some wonderful recipes of yours, too. If I inspire you to try this contest or try writing anything, then I’m very happy!

  16. Absolutely terrific. Would love to share an abbreviated version of this on our website of writers’ help tips (with a few words of introduction and a link back to your blog, of course). We’d be happy to let you approve the post before we publish it. Okay with you?


  17. Jim

    I thought of a 10-word story, Marylin. I don’t want to put it in a contest. It belongs here on your blog about your mom instead. Your mom grew up on a family farm and would know first-hand about this kind of story because it is repeated over and over on family farms across America. The story may explain why Mary learned early in life about the virtue of the ‘helping-hand’ of which you speak so frequently. My story is based on an actual experience my cousin Joyce told me. She grew up on a family farm too.

    Putt-putt-putt. Bedroom curtain parts. Tractors gathering from everywhere.

    • Oh, I love this! Your Uncle Jim and your dad would love this if they were still alive. You and I both have so many fond memories from time spent on our families’ farms! Thanks, sweetie, and my mom would thank you, too.

  18. Wow 10 words, down to 6. Beautiful background and story, so much loss woven around such love and memories.

  19. Such wonderful memories, Marylin. I love that you sometimes illustrated your stories with crayons or colored pencils. Mine would really be a hoot, as I can barely draw stick people.
    Writer’s Digest has a contest where you write the opening sentence to a story based on a photograph they published. I’ve entered a few times, they’re a lot of fun and challenging. I’ll have to give the 10 word contest a try. Thanks for the link!

    • The Writer’s Digest opening line to a story based on a picture is much more in line with my talents, Jill. An opening sentence can be longer than ten words, and its intention is to entice and draw in…not tell a full-image story. But I think I will enter this contest, come hell or high water!

  20. juliabarrett

    Oooh! I may enter this! Thanks, Marylin. You and your mom– such creative positive energetic individuals. I admire the both of you – and you know I envy you your relationship with your mother.

  21. I’m going to enter it, too, Julia.
    At times like this, I wish we all lived in the same area, and any of us who entered the contest could meet and celebrate. If one of us won, it would be great…and loud! But all of us just entering, and sitting around a table in a fun diner or cafe, reading our entries and laughing and applauding, would be a fun celebration, too. Alas! We’re blogging buddies and will just have to encourage each other online. Go for it, Julia!

  22. Marylin, I’m a visual learner, so I always appreciate your images, particularly the cover of the book about your mom. Thanks for link on the ten word contest.

  23. Gather eggs in a pants pocket. Some broke. Very sticky!

    • Excellent, Joanne! (As someone who hated gathering eggs on my aunt and uncle’s farm–because the chickens had great fun pecking my hands
      –now I’m relieved I never had eggs smashed in my pocket!)
      Please, enter this in the contest!

      • Marylin, I wrote about eggs on my blog today! I’ll check out the link you shared! Thank you!

      • Joanne, I just hopped over and read the story about your grandson and the egg gathering accident. I vote with Gavin’s inappropriate but totally understandable language response! This brought back so many egg-gathering memories. We could have a long conversation about the ways chickens ‘get even’ with humans!

  24. Nice of you to put together that book! Sometime tell us how you went about it. Nice you shared the op, thanks. But the best “nice” of all is thinking of you and your mother sharing a difficult time by writing…so moving to think you not only had this outlet, but that you shared it with your mother! Nice all around….

    • How nice 😉 of you to say so, Claudia.
      Those last years of my dad’s Alzheimer’s were difficult for all us, especially for him, bless his heart. Contrived writing challenges–with rewards like going out for coconut cream pie–gave us something to do and to look forward to.
      When life hands us hard times, we just do the best we can, right?

  25. An excellent writing challenge, Marilyn. It’s one I’ll bet my Mom would have loved. As for your students, I can see why some hated it – to narrow your thoughts down to just 10 words takes a lot of creativity. Bless you for always searching for creative ways to connect. 😉

    • Marilyn … You inspired me to take the challenge. I can’t recall the last contest I ever entered. Thank you. Judy

    • Thank you, Judy. It’s strange, but even with creative endeavors, sometimes you have to drag students kicking and screaming. Other times it just takes one good idea or a nudge, and they dive right in and then swim on their own!

      • Yea, Judy! That’s the spirit.
        I’m going to enter it, too–I already have created 4 entries–but since we can enter only one I’ll ask my Wednesday writing group to choose.
        Since we shouldn’t post our entries here, I’ll trust you to enter yours and you’ll trust me to enter mine, and we’ll wish each other the best of luck!

  26. I love these short word story opportunities, Marylin – thanks for the link. And coconut cream pie ain’t bad either!

  27. And the fun thing my mom and I decided, Shel, was that as long as you do the writing (and get those brain cells strumming) you automatically deserve the laughter and coconut cream pie! Talk about a win-win!

  28. Michele Seminara

    Thanks for passing on your mum’s inspiration, Marilyn. x

  29. Gwen Stephens

    This is challenging enough, that I might give it a try. Thanks, Marilyn for another great post!

    • Hey, I read your post that you write–and run–every day more hours than I usually stay awake!!! Gwen, you’re amazing, and you’ll have this 10-word contest entered before you stop for breakfast!

  30. Fun contest. Thanks for sharing the info. Happy day today!

  31. A great post – again! Poignant, informative and a taste of fun. I might just have a go at the contest – and then research Coconut Cream Pie 🙂

  32. Oh I love this post Marylin, and only just getting to it now, at long last! I am going to go for it, thanks so much for the link. No ideas yet, but I’m a -thinking! Interesting as I have to write two short stories for a writing assignment and name the market (can be either a magazine or for a competition) so I am always on the look out for competitions like these, although this will be the first time I’ve tried a story in10 words! I subscribe to a writer’s monthly called Freelance Market News and they have 50 word flash fiction competitions but I’ve never entered. It might be rather fun to though… 😉

    I love the story of you and your Mom sharing your stories and then going out for coconut creme pie afterwards to celebrate. I would do the same but, and I am not fussy trust me, I will eat anything except coconut and rhubarb!! So, for me, it would have to be Lemon Meringue, or my other all-time fav Key Lime Pie 🙂

    • Whatever your favorite dessert, Sherri, make that your writing celebration! Or take whatever you hate eating and make that your punishment if you don’t make your deadline… 😉
      Naw. Creative writing should be encouraged. Reward yourself with the really good stuff.
      Sounds like your writing is on a roll. Keep up the good work!

  33. Molly

    You and Grandma both always had such a way for finding fun, exciting and challenging ways to keep people thinking. I do the same thing at work….everyday I send out a quote to make you think, a story to challenge a point of view or a quick lesson on how to do something in a more effective or efficient way. Sometimes it gets tiresome coming up with things, but I think that the benefit out weighs the cost!

    • It’s in your DNA, honey. Enjoy it.
      I know your efforts at work are appreciated, and at home your kiddos appreciate all the creative things you do with them. I still smile every time I look at the picture of Gannon “writing” on the fence with chalk!

  34. Hudson Howl

    wRITE ….I tend to leave out the ‘w’. As, what remains is more the reason then writing itself. More about the process and what we learn along the way.

    I find great wealth and wisdom in this piece. It speaks to my core. Creativity is the common denominator, I think.

    10 words not so hard, hmmmm. I can have problems with one word at times.

  35. I love the photo of the little boy writing on the fence with chalk. It reminds me of my four-year-old grandson who is currently learning to write (the alphabet).
    I’ve read the six-word short story by Ernest Hemingway before. It’s amazingly simple, yet very effective. I deeply admire any author who can convey so much in 10 words (or less). I can’t do it.
    Not that you need it, but much luck on winning the Gotham Writers 10-word contest Marylin!

    • Gannon (my grandson) was three when this picture was taken, and it’s still one of my favorites. He was a serious chalk artist even then, and that was six years ago!
      Oh, Theresa, 10-word stories are SO hard. And the more writing friends who share their entries with me, the more I realize there are already many amazing stories out there. But I thank you for wishing me luck. Anything to keep the pen moving during the winter blahs.

  36. Not sure I can be a person of so few words, but love the concept and especially love the quote by Anais Nin.

    • That’s my favorite Anais Nin quote, and I do believe that we write to taste life twice. Even 10-word stories let us taste ideas twice, though a friend told me when it’s a 10-word restriction, the taste is bitter. 😉
      Still, I hope you’ll just try writing a few, just for yourself.

  37. Love this contest! Now I need to think about what to submit.

  38. This is great, I will probably skip it, though! I am just too verbose to write that short of a meaningful message! Smiles, Robin

  39. Thanks for coming and visiting my blog. Rosemarie

  40. First of all I want to say awesome blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind.
    I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear
    your head before writing. I have had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there.
    I do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes
    are wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints?

  41. I am truly pleased to glance at this blog posts which contains tons
    of helpful facts, thanks for providing these kinds of information.

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