Zachary Whitten has decided to take a breather. He's just come off of a yearlong online effort called Memphis Fast Fiction, which amounted to 73,000 words total. That breaks down to 365 short-short stories (exactly 200 words per story) written by Whitten every day for 365 days.
To make matters more challenging, Whitten had to come up with stories to match a title and a key word supplied by friends and followers at memphisfastfiction.com. (Submitted title for one story: "Lemon Meringue"; submitted key word for the same story: "conundrum.")
And to make matters more interesting, Whitten went to scenes and figures out of Memphis history for inspiration. One such scene: the drug trade in the 1880s, when downtown opium dens operated legally and the clientele included society women and their "escorts."
"Sex and the City with opiates, corsets, and bustles" is how Whitten describes this bit of lesser-known local history.
Or take the discovery of the city's artesian wells. Whitten does in a story involving a guy in the ice-making business and a 20-year-old geologist with a crackpot theory, the theory being that under the city's clay layer, you'd hit an aquifer of clean water that was perfect for producing clean ice and a big improvement on the city's filthy water supplies drawn from the Gayoso Bayou and the Wolf and Mississippi rivers.
On Whitten's story featuring the funeral of photographer William Eggleston, best not to remind the writer of it. According to Whitten, "Friends wrote, 'You know he's not dead, right?'" Wrong. Whitten didn't know.)
"This is what you learn when you spend a year researching the crazy stuff in Memphis," Whitten says of the research that went into Memphis Fast Fiction. "If this writing project has taught me anything, it's that this one spot on the Mississippi has never not been kind of messed up and crazy, starting with the original settlement. Memphis was the most debauched place on the French frontier. Gambling, drinking: There was nothing else for people to do."
Whitten embarked on the project as if he had nothing else to do. But he did have things to do as a website builder and occasional writer for Combustion, the local design and advertising company, and as a novelist (with a chapter to be written every week), but, in Whitten's words, the novel's characters "got away from him."
"Ultimate freedom in the creative sense is crippling. With Memphis Fast Fiction, I had to keep a rein on it," Whitten says. "I had to work with what I had. That was the rule. Two hundred words. No cheating. Two hundred five words: I'd sit there staring. What am I gonna cut?" The result: "I'm harder now on what I will or won't put on paper. I'm more ready to take a knife to what I've written."
Blame Whitten's work ethic on White Station High. He was in the school's optional program, which meant a lot of AP credits.
"That program ... you were so stressed out," Whitten recalls. "Busy all the time. Part of doing this fast-fiction project was the fact that I don't know what to do with myself if I'm not working on three projects at once. It feels weird just watching TV."
So Whitten — who was profiled a year ago in the Flyer's annual salute to the city's young movers and shakers, "20 Under 30" — is not just watching TV. He's not even through with Memphis Fast Fiction:
"I haven't gone back to the stories — yet. I've given myself a month to let my brain recongeal into a solid mass. But these stories are going to be published. I or someone will pay for it. There's going to be a book, no question.
"The stories are publicly available, five at a time, at the Memphis Fast Fiction website. I'm not going to go in and edit anything beyond typos and grammar. If I wrote a crappy story one day, I wrote a crappy story. It's the nature of the project.
"But I'm optimistic. If, after a year, no one's taken the stories for publication, fine. Gotta do it myself."
It's that personal can-do attitude that Whitten also sees in the city he so loves.
"People have a skewed perception of Memphis," Whitten believes. "The negativity here: It's not deserved. The city isn't falling into ruin. The city has always been in the process of tearing itself down and building itself back up.
"My motto for Memphis: Nothing good is ever easy. Don't even expect good to happen. You have to go out there and do it. If you succeed, it means more here than anyplace I know."