Category Archives: Columbia University

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Syntax makes me hot

 by Sally Reno
It took 3 days to read on radio

I have always written short. I remember, before I was school-aged, composing little notes. As soon as I knew the alphabet, I had things to say. Very short things. This because my method was to ask my mother to spell out for me aloud the words I wanted. I somehow sensed that she was not going to be willing to spell me through anything like a Russian novel.

By 17, I was writing and publishing what would be called flash fiction today. The peculiarity of this was noted, but not always reviled. There was a lot more experimenting with form then than there is now.

“To irony, ambiguity, and tension–Andother things I do not wish to mention.”

~Kenneth Koch 

At Columbia University, I was fortunate in being able to take a poetry writing class with Kenneth Koch, a thing well known to be a life changing experience. He taught us never to undervalue either simplicity or surprise.
Lady Murasaki composes flash fiction circa 1000 C.E.
The magic words, “flash fiction” came along only recently, but people have always written very short fiction. The form has a history millennia longer than the long forms like novels. Romans of the classical age, early medieval Japanese court ladies, and 17th century Frenchwomen have been especial masters of the craft.
The next issue of blink-ink print, coming in early April and themed, “Mystery Train” will lead off with a 40-word microfiction by Petronius Arbiter, written about 54 A.D. Petronius lived in Cumae and had been to see the Cumaean Sybil. He constructed a couple of stellar sentences about the experience. When, eventually, he built a scene in the Satyriconaround them, the purport of the scene was to make fun of anyone who would say anything so preposterous as those two sentences. Yet, they remain one of the best pairs of sentences in all of literature.
I love sentences. Most writers will tell you they love words. Words are good, but sentences are the bees’ knees. Syntax makes me hot.
I have been a hired-gun writer most of my working life and have only gotten back to writing the things I wish to say in the last decade or so.
I began as a political speechwriter, which was my introduction to writing comedy. A joke I wrote for the Mayor of NYC to tell on The Tonight Show provoked more hate mail than anything the show had received up to that point—an early career triumph that I am unlikely to live long enough to top.
I am also a radio-head, another exercise in writing short best defined as getting to the point immediately or sooner. It also teaches the difference between writing for the eye and writing for the ear.
The Mayor tells a joke.

The best radio also breaks the waves of form. At WBAI, we read every word of War and Peace on-air. This was accomplished by relays of readers working around the clock. My best recollection is that it took about three days. We also pioneered naked radio, claiming to be broadcasting with no clothes on. We invited listeners to come down to the studio, take off their clothes and join us. It was a fine measure of living in heady times that so many people took us up on that offer.

This was before the corporate Kraken crushed the life out of broadcasting, but even then, the commercial spots were heinous. The effect of that, in legal language, was that of an ‘attractive nuisance’—something I could not resist messing with. To my knowledge, I was the first (and probably the last) to write and produce radio commercials that exploited multi-tracking capabilities around tiny whacked stories.  I recorded 30 and 60 second stories with bed music and the commercial message woven through them on side and travel tracks. Thus, I learned what is actually at stake when we say, “in a minute.”
Perhaps because of time spent telling other people’s stories, I like to throw some elbows in my writing. I like it even better when I hit something.
I am among those writers who need to get a first line down in order to release the goat pen of babble. That first line is often the first line of the finished piece but not always. Sometimes that first sentence is entirely gone when the piece is finished—the sacrificial sentence. I suppose this amounts to being mostly muse-driven. As such I don’t benefit from disciplines like writing at the same time every day or setting a daily quota of words or pages. Sometimes a whole piece will leap from my head fully-formed. Only the white goddess knows why.

See Sally Reno in action at the January F-Bomb event: MOUTH CRIMES with Gay Degani and hosted by Kathy Fish:


Sally Reno’s fiction has been among the winners of  National Public Radio’s Three Minute Fiction Contest, Moon Milk Review’s Prosetry Contest, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in a vaporish grotto where she serves as Pythoness to blink-ink print and Haruspex for Shining Mountains Press.

Author photo by Jesse Coley