Contest, Craft-Talk, Cormorant


by Debbie Vance

The deadline for Kenyon Review‘s 2014 short fiction contest is fast approaching! Only four days to polish up those short short stories and send them out into the world. (March 1 is the deadline.)

Kenyon Review has published the top three winners from the 2013 contest online, and I just finished reading the first place story, “Town of Birds” by Heather Monley.

In the town where the children turned into birds, we were not as surprised as you might imagine. Children have always been changing into things—becoming things you wouldn’t expect. There was the time the boys grew their hair long so they looked like girls, and the time the girls wore the heavy pants of boys. When the children grew feathers and took to the trees, we believed it was more of the same.

It’s a beautiful story about the sudden and unexpected and ongoing change of all the town children into birds–“A breed of cormorant, we learned, was their species.” The voice is soft, first-person from a young girl who is left behind in human form. We hear a detached narrative of the events, a gentle longing for the avian life, and a glimpse into her mother, who keeps watch for her older son, who is one of them now.

What most captivated me were the sentences. The sentences themselves support the theme, the images, the tone of the whole piece. They are lyric, flowing with soft sounds and flapping, floating rhythms that imitate both the  flight of birds and the wistfulness of the grounded.

“My brother stopped coming to the house at all. He was lost to the trees and lake.”

“He lifted from the ground and flew to the trees that bordered the school, and there we could not catch him.”

“I dive into the lake and imagine the water pulls back my skin, revealing something new and black underneath.”

In the end, Monley expands out, encompassing all of humanity in this bizarre reality: “So many places come to their end. Our town is no different from any of them.”


Now, as all good writers   read     as     writers, let’s take from this story a writing prompt:

Ask a basic questions–let it be as bizarre as can be–and explore the possibilities. Limit the scope. Focus on one town, one household, one person. Don’t worry about developing a vast character web and a hundred year history; don’t worry about working out all of the implications your scenario would have on future generations, the quality of the drinking water, the sentience of the trees, etc. Keep it simple. But true.

Think Kafka’s MetamorphosisHe focused on one man and his family–what was true for them? In “Town of Birds,” Monley focuses on this one town, on one girl within that town. She doesn’t ask how the transformation began, or why, and the reader has no real need to know. The story’s reality simply is, and we allow it because it is truthfully told in this one small time and space.

Make a list of What If’s. Play a little. Writing doesn’t always have to be so serious. Let your critical side take a walk to the grocery store and imagine what it would be like if all the children started turning into birds of the cormorant species.


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