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From Trash to Treasure

Siân Griffiths turns rejected prompts into short story masterpieces.

Siân Griffiths likes a challenge. At the October 7 English Reading Series, she discussed taking rejected or difficult prompts and turning them into literary masterpieces. Griffiths made her own attempt to do so in her short story, “The Key Bearer’s Parents,” in which she took three random and “impossible” writing prompts and turned them into a creative story with a powerful theme. Her methodology provides a thought-provoking life lesson: unexpected challenges and rejections can lead to valuable discussions and ideas.

Griffiths drew inspiration for the short story from a podcast where the hosts proposed a thought experiment: how do we make wartime deaths real to people in power? Would nuclear war and the mass casualties that follow feel more real to military and political leaders if they each killed someone and witnessed death firsthand? Disturbed by the image and concerned about the possibility of nuclear war, Griffiths wondered if she could write a story that plays with the idea of implanting nuclear codes within humans.

Shortly after listening to the podcast, Griffiths discovered a call for submissions at a journal known as the “Stupid Idea Junk Drawer,” where editors list ideas they had for stories they would never write because the ideas were too brainless or unrealistic. One submission offered the idea of clown parents being disappointed by their non-clown child. Griffiths said, “I know something about being a parent. I know something about being a child. I might even know something about disappointing my parents.”

Amused but inspired, Griffiths filed the idea in the back of her mind.

Her final idea came from a writing podcast where the hosts discussed writing prompts that “didn’t work.” One prompt involved a story ending with the line, “Money is the root of all evil, but a man needs roots.”

Griffiths combined each of the impossible prompts into a short story—at first, just to prove that she could. Her story centered on the son of clown parents who struggled with choosing a career. After exploring blue- and white-collar careers, the son discovered a highly paid and respected opportunity to be the government’s nuclear key bearer. This required the son to have a key that launched the country’s nuclear weapons implanted in his heart.

In order for the president to access the key, he would have to stab the son. The theory was that doing so would cause the president to understand firsthand the impact of death before he made the final decision to use the nuclear weapons. Although the son could die at any moment, the promised life of luxury was too enticing to turn down.

Griffiths’ work was featured on the American Short Fiction website and became a wild success. She won the Best American Essays 2021 award and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times.

When asked about inspiration for her novels, Griffiths denied having any special abilities as a writer. Instead, she described how she simply ponders things that bother her or thinks about life in a different way. “I don’t know if I am very creative either. I’m a magpie and pick and put stuff together,” she said. Her experience provides a good lesson for writers everywhere—that inspiration can be found everywhere, even a junk drawer.

Discover more inspirational authors and literature at the English Reading Series each Friday at noon in the HBLL.