Every other month in a bar in Grand Rapids, a group of people all over the community gather to read their own short stories: written in 440 words or less.
Fiction 440 is a flash fiction group open to all writers of any level — you don’t even have to be a writer to give it a shot. A prompt of three words is given and each participant must write a short story in 440 words using those three words somewhere in the writing.
“It’s really fun to see what everybody comes up with, because you get the same words but the stories end up being completely different,” said Allison Spooner, director of the Fiction 440 Grand Rapids chapter. Living in Lansing, Spooner first attended Fiction 440 events there and wrote lots of short stories in that time.
“I’m actually using a lot of the stories I’ve written from the Lansing events and the events since I’ve started here and putting them in a flash fiction book, and I wouldn’t have those without going to these events,” Spooner said.
As a writer, Spooner said she likes to be surrounded by other creative minds, so she decided to create a Grand Rapids chapter, with the Lansing group’s permission.
“I like being around other writers, even if they’re not ‘serious’ writers, I like being around creative people,” Spooner said. “It makes me write, I need that.”
On that note, this flash fiction group is not considered a “serious” writer’s workshop. No critiques, no judgement. Spooner said anyone is welcome, even if they just want to listen.
“(It’s) pretty laid back, more of a social gathering,” Spooner said. “I don’t do coffee shops, because I think it helps people to have a little … alcoholic inspiration, even if it’s just a glass of wine before you go up. And then a lot of the time, you end up hanging out and chatting.”
In the past, the readings have been held at places like Flatlanders, Reservoir and Creston Brewery.
At the events, the group gathers around and everyone takes turns reading their short stories aloud to the group. At the end of the event, three words are chosen to be the prompt for the next round of stories. Sometimes the words can relate to a season or holiday, but usually they are meant to be pretty random.
“I did an election edition (in December 2016), and the words were ‘unity,’ ‘march’ and ‘election,’” Spooner said. “I don’t know if anyone wrote about the actual election. Somebody wrote a really cute one — they never used names, they didn’t get too descriptive, but it was about a family moving out of a house that their kids … grew a lot in and about how hard it was going to be to leave this house. And then at the end, you realize it was about the Obamas.”
Spooner said since she started the group in August 2016, she hasn’t had anyone write anything particularly controversial or political.
“I think it shows, it’s kind of an escape,” Spooner said. “Even when they’re given words that could tie into (the election), people just didn’t want to talk about it. They wanted to take that time to get away and do something else. Writing, for a lot of people, is an escape, and reading is an escape.”
An escape that anyone can enjoy, without pressure.
“It gets you out of your comfort zone,” Spooner said. “You can try something new … Everybody has that desire to tell a story, no matter who you are, even if you’re not a writer you still like to tell stories to your friends. This is a good way to do that without committing to ‘being a writer.’”
Margaret Schiefer has been to a few events now, and has enjoyed the creative escape.
“Creative writing can be intimidating, especially if you’re someone like me who’s only really wrote essays or school reports,” Schiefer said. “Fiction 440 gave me a low pressure, supportive opportunity to play with a new creative outlet.”
For the future, Spooner said she would like to see more people attending the events and writing stories, and change up the types of locations once and awhile.
“I like that Lansing did different types of events,” Spooner said. “I think that would be fun to showcase different places in Grand Rapids, creative pursuits like museums”
The next event for Fiction 440 Grand Rapids will be March 30. For more information, check the group out on Facebook.