What If? 88 – Exploring the Creative Writing process

The intro is a parable: writing is like cleaning a linoleum floor. I remember linoleum floors! I had one in Quincy. anyway, she gives this little thing about first you sweep a square of 16 tiles, then you scrub that square, then you dry then wax then buff, then you move on to the next sixteen-tile square. And of course everyone says, “That’s not how you do it!” and she says, of course not, that’s how NOT to write. I feel cheated.

Exercise: look at Writers at Work from the Paris Review Interviews. Note how different writers talk about their process. Which is most like yours, which is most different?
Objective: There is no correct way to write but there is a series of stages: a spark, discovering the first draft, exploring further possibilities of character and action in middle drafts, editing and polishing the work. Attempting to do too much too soon often ends up feeling frustrating. There is a time to discover and take risks and explore, and another time to polish syntax and diction.

I don’t have the Interviews she’s talking about so I’ll just use the Glimmer Train “Writers Ask” series as well as some other things I’ve heard of. I’m gripped, however, by the idea that it can be frustrating to do too much for the stage you’re in. I think maybe that’s something I need to look at – that I’m trying to finish a story in my head before writing the first word, since I have this aversion to throwing out what doesn’t work. Now, I used to teach expository writing as a tutor in college, and I kept telling people not to feel bad about cutting something that they like but either isn’t working with other parts of the paper or there is a word restriction and it’s too long – “you can always use it in another paper.’ And I’m ignoring my own advice. I’m approaching each story like it’s the last one I’ll ever write. I need to knock that off.

However, I’m not crazy about the Ron Carlson method of writing a really jam-packed first sentence and seeing where it goes. I’m probably taking that too literally – he probably goes back and adds things to that first sentence, or changes things that turn out to be red herrings.

I’m also not crazy about the “you must write # words every day” model. But that may be because I’m thinking of “writing” as new material, a new part of a story, not rewrites, editing, research, or ideas. I do some of those things every day, I’m pretty sure, though not lately.

The model that appeals to me most is “get a draft down on the page and then worry about what works and what doesn’t” because you can’t rewrite, edit, restructure, etc unless you have something to begin with.

So the point is I need to write, not just think about stories and have them torturing me in my head. I need to get back to work. I’ve got mornings pretty set up as work time, so I can do that now.

What If? – Part Eleven: Rewriting is Writing

I’ve been reading more and writing, working on writing, less, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This section, rewriting, is good because I have trouble with rewriting. I get attached to things – not a first draft, necessarily, but the way I approach something, or certain scenes, and I have a lot of trouble letting them go when that’s necessary on rewrites to make the story better. Fact is, it’s part of my goofy aesthetic, I like things that aren’t good and I’ve really struggled with that. Lately I’ve been struggling with getting to the point of having a first draft – I keep writing one or two sentence blurbs, things I might like to turn into a story some day, but I haven’t been working on any of the stories I had going a few weeks ago: “I see Dead People,” “Li-Su Learns to Cook,” or the mourning mom story. A lot of it is that I’m just struggling with everything, like getting out of bed and taking a shower. Some of it is that I think maybe I’m writing the wrong kind of story, that humor is where I should be, I read “Then We Came To The End” or some such thing and I think, hey, why don’t they let me do that, and I wonder who “they” are and just how they are preventing me. I do have a humor story out and it isn’t exactly a hot property, so maybe that’s how.

And some of it is just that I’m tired of writing crappy stories, and I don’t know how to write good ones so I’m working on getting to a point where I can actually write something worthwhile. And then we have the holiday season which of course has everyone’s head up their ass.

Anyway, revising. I read something interesting in the intro, that each draft should leave earlier drafts behind, the idea is to move forward with one story, not a bunch of versions of one story. Uh oh. I wonder if they know I have three versions of “Drowning.” Not that it matters, none of them is any good. But the advice I got was to go third person and leave out the backstory and the convoluted flashbacks, keep it all in the moment, and I didn’t like what I ended up with, the story didn’t make sense that way. This leave-the-last-draft-behind is a big deal for me. I don’t want to let go because I like my mistakes, wrong as they may be.

But I do want to get back to doing an exercise a day out of What If? so I’ve started again. There’s no exercise in the introduction, but at least I’ve made some forward motion.

What if? 87 – Notes and letters

Epistolary novels – The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books, Fair and Tender Ladies, The Color Purple. Many employ letters. Quick way of delivering exposition, characterization, and voice.
Exercise: Write one of these in letters: college student telling parents he’s dropping out of school and you want them to understand even if they don’t approve, plus the parent’s answer; write landlord a letter why you’re withholding rent; leave a note for spouse explaining why you’re leaving; literary graffiti on the walls of a toilet in the Library of Congress. 500 words.
Objective: get inside the head of another person and use her voice to vary narrative conveyance. Huh? I’m not sure what that means. Isn’t that what all fiction is?

Hi Daddy –
Let me tell you how much fun I’ve been having on spring break! It’s great here in Mexico – we have breakfast on the beach and then we go into town and then we go dancing, it’s really great! Don’t worry, I’m not drinking and I’m not getting into any trouble, it’s really not like Girls Gone Wild, it’s just a nice beach vacation. Rachel and Deb are having fun too.

That’s what I wanted to tell you about. We’ve been talking to this guy, Tic, he owns a little cafe down here, and all the tourists go there. It’s a nice little place, sandwiches and coffee, all these teas, pretty tea pots, and he wants us to work there as waitresses and learn to make pottery when we aren’t working! He’s a really talented artist, his tea pots and cups are all over Mexico, every restaurant has them. And if we learn his craft, we will be artists, too. He can teach us to use the wheel and paints and the ovens. All for free! He’s even going to pay us to waitress. And of course we’ll make a lot on tips, the tourists are very generous here.

I know you want me to finish my degree and go on to business school, or law school, but this is an opportunity I just can’t miss. If we don’t take this chance, we’ll miss out because he’ll find someone else to do it, and we’ll never learn pottery. I know you’ll be proud of me, and some day I’ll send you a complete set of my pottery and you’ll see it was the right thing to do.

Dear Laura:
Your letter and the letter from the school arrived on the same day. How does one fail Ballroom Dance? What, you can’t count to four? And English, for god’s sake, you speak English every day, I would think you’d be able to at least get a D.

So I think I sense something other than artistic yearning behind your desire to stay in Mexico. And, by the time you get this letter, I will probably be coming up behind you at this little cafe of yours. I will not be surprised, I promise you, when I find out it’s an underground club specializing in lap dancing, and the only sandwiches being served involve three people. I will be relieved it isn’t an opium den. Or worse. And Tic, let me guess, he’s had a hard life and you’ve already given him your spending money, you’ve bought him a motorcycle, and bailed him out of jail with your emergency fund. No, I’m not a mind reader. I was young once, too. And, let’s just say I have resources you don’t understand, like a very good detective who works fast and discretely and has contacts all over the world. There are some things a lawyer can accomplish that a potter can’t. Even if I can’t pot.

So, when you hear me knock on your door – oh, yes, you’ll know it’s me, the old Shave and a Haircut – you’ll be suitably dressed, packed, and ready to travel back to State U where a tutor will work with you for the rest of Spring Break to get your grades to a point where you will pass your Sophomore year. Do you know Sophomore means Wise Fool? Be a wise fool, Laura. Because a foolish fool might never get her ass out of Mexico alive, if Tic has anything to say about it. As a special favor to you, Rachel, and Deb, I will arrange for an excellent attorney to defend him against the charges that are about to be filed against him. I’m not without sentiment, you see.

You’re still my little girl. Are you packed yet?


What If? 86 – One in the Hand

Proverbs come from experience. Rolling stone; stitch in time; bird in the hand.

Exercise: take one of the proverbs above and outline a short story that uses it as both plot and theme.

Objective: first, to make yourself super-sensitive to ordinary things that contain the essence of drama. Second, to transform old-fashioned trite common wisdom into a real narrative.

Hah! I’ve always had trouble with the proverb, “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” because I don’t know if gathering moss is a good thing or a bad thing. So:

Franklin dropped by Barney’s house. Barney and his wife, they were new to the town, only here a few weeks, and Franklin wanted to be neighborly.

Barbara looked a bit disheveled at the door, a drippy soapy mop in her hand, but she smiled and invited him in. “Barney’s out back,” she said. “You can go ahead if you like, he won’t be back in until sundown.”

“What’s he doing?” asked Franklin, seeing Barney through the glass doors and screen porch, trudging to the top of the hill behind the house with an armful of something.

“Keeping the moss away,” said Barbara.

Franklin wasn’t sure what that meant, but he felt he was intruding on this woman who still held her mop and didn’t seem eager to put it down any time soon. He went out to the hill and caught up with Barney just as he was throwing the rocks down. The men exchanged hello’s, and he shook hands. Barney’s arms were smeared with dirt and grass stains, bruised, shaking. He threw the last rock, then headed down the hill without comment.

Franklin followed him. “What are you doing, can I help you?” he said.

“I’m keeping the moss away.”

Franklin considered this. He couldn’t really make much sense out of it, so he murmured a noncommittal “oh”. They reached the bottom of the hill, and Barney started picking up the rocks he’d rolled down the hill. “You can get those two if you don’t mind,” he said, pointing at a pair that had wobbled a little more eastward than the others, landing on the other side of where Franklin stood. Franklin picked them up, then followed Barney back up the hill, only to see him give the rocks enough of a push to send them rolling back down the hill.

“Barney, why are you doing this?”

“Gotta keep the moss away,” he said.

“What’s so bad about moss?” said Franklin.

Barney stopped in mid-toss. He looked at the rock he was holding. Clean as a whistle, not a speck of moss. Perfect. He looked at Franklin.

“What’s the matter with you?” he said.

Franklin shrugged, and left Barney to self-Sisyphy all he wanted. He went out back of his own home and checked some rocks. Some of them had a few mossy streaks. Others were covered with the stuff. A few were bare. He looked out over the field behind his home, at all the stones, and wondered which one, him or Barney, was crazy.

What if? 84 – Five Different Versions – and one of them is not a lie

How we tell our own personal stories often depends on who we’re telling them to. We might exaggerate, minimize, dramatize, leave out or amplify certain details.

Exercise: Here is the story: you are coming out of a movie theatre at seven in the evening when you are mugged, he asks you for money, takes it, pushes you down and runs away. Now, tell this story to your mother, best friend, romantic partner, therapist, police officer.

Now this is fun.

Mother: “Oh, it was nothing, some guy asked me for money and then I slipped on something, there must’ve been some stick or something on the sidewalk. I didn’t have hardly any money on me anyway, so he sure picked the right time to rob me! Well, the wrong time for him! [mom: where was husband] “I wanted to see this movie, and Paul really didn’t so I went on a night he was working late.” [you’ve got to be more careful or you’ll get raped running around the way you do] “There were people right around the corner, I should’ve just screamed and he’d have run off but I guess I thought it’d be easier to just give him the ten bucks and get rid of him.” Minimizing, avoiding the issue of fight with husband.

Best friend: “It was all Paul’s fault, we’d had this huge fight that morning and then he called to say he was working late and we had another fight right then, so instead of going home I went to see the new movie, I left before the end and I was crying so I went down a side street by mistake, oh, it was awful, and all I could think was it’d suit him right for me to be killed and he’d know the last time we talked he was being such a pisspot.” Blaming husband.

Romantic partner: “It was awful, this horrid man, he was dirty and ugly, he looked mean, and I thought he was going to kill me so when he asked for money I was almost relieved but I thought he was going to rape me, he kept looking at me, my legs and my boobs, and he smiled a little bit, but other people were walking by up at the corner so I guess he figured he wouldn’t be able to get away with it, he’d get caught so he pushed me down, he was so rough, he shoved me by the arm, look, is there a bruise? I’ll have to wear sleeves for a while, and I scraped my knee on the sidewalk, see, I’m going to have a big ugly scab, but at least I’m alive, wow, when I think of what could’ve happened.” Garnering sympathy, exaggerating trauma, hoping he’ll feel bad.

Therapist: “I feel a little weird because I wasn’t more scared. I mean, it just wasn’t that scary. He asked me for money the way panhandlers do, if I’d said no he might’ve just shrugged and walked away, he wasn’t a big guy. I don’t know why he pushed me, maybe he was afraid of me, I don’t know, it was strange, but I should’ve been paying attention to where I was going and used the crosswalk and gone down Forest instead of cutting through the alley. I know better. You know how you’re always telling me I make it a habit to set myself up? Well, I think I did it again, this time.” Relative honesty about her own role, insight.

Police officer: “I can’t really describe him, he looked like a street guy, he wore a jacket over a flannel shirt and his hair was kind of long, like over his ears but not on his shoulders, I don’t know what color his eyes were, he was a little shorter than me, average build, I don’t really know, I doubt I’d recognize him again, he looks like all of them, the panhandlers and the bums on the street.” Relative honest victim account, downplayed because she doesn’t want to be bothered with police.

What If? 83 – Sunday: Discovering emotional triggers.

“Most of the time it doesn’t matter on what day a story happens, except for Sunday – people are at loose ends, oversleep, overeat, overreact, it’s an odd day with emotional triggers. Certain words or ideas – retirement, in-laws, boss, vacation, pneumonia, fraud – serve as triggers for stories or scenes. unday is one of them. Try to think of others.”

Really? I think all days have emotional triggers. There is something about Sunday – it tends to be purely recreational, very few people work, church day, family day, football day, picnic day, go sledding day, whatever. But there’s something about Saturday, too – errands and party night. And Friday, end of the workweek. And Monday, oh god I have to go to work again. Tues, Weds, Thurs, run together but they’re marked by ordinariness. For that matter, just about any word or idea has an emotional trigger. Retirement, certainly – either as setting free or as the end of usefulness – but boss? Pneumonia? Fraud? There are emotional triggers, sure, but so are there with cat, dog, baby, boots, pot roast, school, bells, hamburger, gentle, war – I don’t see that pneumonia or fraud means more or less than anything else.

Exercise: 550 words, title it Sunday.
The hush was almost tactile. It wasn’t the quiet before a storm, or that awkward silence after an unwittingly rude or obscene remark is splayed out on the conference table in a meeting, or the tense pause between serious question (“So, what did the biopsy show?”) and equally serious, or opposingly refreshing, answer. It was worshipful, respectful silence, relaxed rather than enforced. Even the machines dispensing IV fluids seemed to beep more quietly, and the televisions were for once all off or on mute. A nurse entering a room with a swish of rubber soles on tile might have floated in, the blood pressure cuff pumped up with minimal puff and hiss, and when she was finished she replaced it in the bedside basket by turning, walking, reaching, laying it gently on the wires rather than tossing it as usual. It was Sunday, and everything respected that. Everyone. Mrs. Alfonso kept her usual complaining to herself, and Mr. Bronsky tolerated the aching in his chest even as it crescendoed to pain. It was only his sweat, pimpling his forehead and neck, that spoke, but the nurse did not hear it.

What If? 80 – Illustrations

Exercise: drawing pictures can be useful at various stages. Start by drawing picture to illustrate your own work from the last couple of years. If you’re part of a writer’s group, try illustrating each others’ stories.Turn to a work in progress and draw an illustration for each scene or section.

Objective: A useful map of the energy of a story and what has stayed with you as author and reader. Provides info not accessible by verbal discussion.

Interesting. Zin drew a lot. In fact, I have a lot of Zin drawings from the Nightingale story and Harold. And of course “Doodle” has illustration as part of the story. I wanted that very badly and Ellen was cool with it, changed it a little but still, it worked. That was from the Gahan Wilson story I’d read years and years ago!

I love the illustrations in Aimee Bender’s “The Three Elevators” – only the cover and one inside, line drawings, very simple, but charming. I often have pictures in my head of the people in my stories, and I can see something like movies of certain scenes – the wharf scene in Drowning, for example. But for me it’s titles – I still think of “That Season of Madness” as “Glasses”, and “Drowning” is still “Drown” unless I concentrate on fixing it. I never expected to use “Green” as a title (I have a very clear picture of Jamie and Michael from that story) but that’s what happened.

I can’t draw pictures here, but if I were to illustrate the Mourning story, it would be hard because I’m resisting making the mother Asian, though I see her as Asian. I’ve noticed a lot of the afternotes in BASS indicate the author started with a vision – Danielle Evans saw a man in uniform with a little girl on his shoulders, knew she was not his daughter but almost, and that’s how the story started. Mourning, I see the scene where the kid returns her credit card to the car very clearly. Also her face as she says, “I lost my son, too” – anger, shame, grief, relief. I don’t draw well enough to capture those things, though.

When I read some edits to the Notes story in the writing group a while back, several people there said they could see it as an illustrated book with pictures of the notes, with Max playing with them, the old lady leaning out of the window, etc. I see the same thing, though I see it in live action, not drawings. The note coming out of the Victrola horn, actually was an image before it was written into the story. and now that I know I want to add a villain, I can see Max going into the Victrola after him.

What If? 79 – It’s All In Your Head

Time to get back on the horse. Break’s over.

Avoid the obvious cliches (“heart jumped”) when describing strong emotional reactions, find new ways to describe physical sensations, new images.

Exercise: write 3 paragraphs: fear, anger, pleasure, avoiding cliches and the usual emotional indicators.

Was it a sound that woke her? Probably, though it could be just the end of a nasty dream, all tangled in webs or stabbed in the belly button, thesewere things that might have caused the pounding heart, the dry mouth, the buzzing in the ears. The urgency to hold still; not even to breathe, lestsome intruder nearby sense she had awakeded and would now need to slaughter her to remain undiscovered. She concentrated: slowly in, slowlyout, pay no attention to the lungs screaming for more air, they are reacting to adrenaline and if the mind can find a safe place, it will pass. But agulp is necessary, tongue thick with old saliva as the glands shut down. Maybe I can just move a little, it will be like I am rolling over in my sleep, she believes so in the intruder she tailors her actions to him. The tremors are too much, though, and cramps force her legs to straighten, her feet to flatten, and she knows she has failed and deserves to die.

“I know what I’m doing.”
Not much of an offense, just an offhand statement. And looking back on it, I realized he might’ve meant no harm, just that he was trained and I wasn’t and that’s why he could set up the machine and I couldn’t. But at the time, I heard my brother’s voice sneering at me, my joystick impotent against his (he had five years on me, after all): “I know what I’m doing!” followed by a gleeful cackle. I went from pleasant housewife to deranged maniac in a matter of seconds. That feeling, the curling heat in my chest, the clench of fists, the grit of teeth, and then the words, oh, what words, the poor kid (and he was a kid) never knew what hit him as I unloaded my inner eight-year-old’s helplessness, shame, incompetence, on him, and saw the look on his face change from bored just-doing-my-job to almost – almost – fear, that almost my one regret, that even though he was on my territory, even though he was wrong and I was the customer and I was, to any observer, out of my mind, I still could not have that much of an effect. That’s when the pressure started, like my body was containing a multi-megaton explosion, and when action was unstoppable. I think someone will understand that, won’t they?

She didn’t want to touch the chicken – cold, wet, sticky, salmonellous- but it was required for baking that it be slathered with butter. And what a surprise. Once she got her hands dirty, she knew they would get no dirtier so she might as well slather the hell out of it, get that butter tinged with garlic and onion and lime and salt all the way into those nooks and crannies, under the skin, over the skin, inside outside around up down, and the butter melted with the heat of her hand and the surface of the skin warmed, and she slid her hands over slippery surface and glided back and forth, feeling plump flesh curve into her palms and pushed her flavored fatty fingers between skin and meat and knew this, this would be one helluva chicken, juicy, tender, a little sweet, a little salty, not the kind of chicken they mean when they talk about what strange meat tastes like (Oh, armadillo? Tastes just like chicken!) but a pullet of moist flavor and gluttinous taste, nourishment for soul and stomach, a chicken a man would remember the next day, the next week, whenever he drove by her street or walked past her office, for years to come.
(hmmm… I don’t think this is exactly what they had in mind, but who cares)

What If? 71 – The Pet Store Story: Exposition (Ron Carlson)

This is the second Ron Carlson exercise in this book, and I didn’t like the other one either. I remember reading Ron Carlson Writes a Story, and I didn’t quite get it because it seemed he just wrote the first sentence and then went from there. Maybe I’ll be able to do that some day (I pretty much did here, and the result is, well, let’s call it disappointing). 

Hah, I just looked at my notes from his book (library book so I took notes) and I said: “God, I love this book.  It’s exactly what I needed to read right now.”  I think it was the “write what you want to read” idea: “If you don’t want to read the story, then it is not worth writing. ” I didn’t want to write this story in this exercise. I think that’s evident.

It’s interesting I had to work to get more than a few sentences in the first part. This whole specificity thing, describing what things feel like, just goes by me. Maybe if the story mattered, the setting would matter. Sometimes it’s incredibly important how someone feels in a situation; but in the beginning of a story, all that atmosphere is stuff to skip over, I want to know what they’re thinking, who they are, what they want or don’t want, why they are there, not how hot they are or how desolate it is. I must be misreading this becaus I can’t believe other people want to know that stuff, either.

Three part story. 600 to 1000 words. Two people approach a pet store; we find out their recent and not-so-recent history; they go into the pet store.

1. Write one page in which 2 people approach a pet store, any pet store. The duty is to convince us this is an actual place and these are actual people. 90 percent outer story – the day, the sounds, the imagery through which two people approach the pet store.

Lucy dragged Bob by the hand. He hung back, sweat dripping in his eyes, but her grip was firm and she was determined so he knew he was going with her even though his feet resisted. “Come on, ” she siad, “You’ll see.” Out in the middle of nowhere, a sleepy sauna between Morganton and Fryville, nothing here but All Things Bright and Beautiful, a tiny shack that could use some paint and maybe some repairs to the porch, maybe someone’s home back in the Depression but now just a blot on the steamy landscape, air thick enough to swim in. Nothing bright, nothing beautiful, even the hot sun was just a smear muted by the moisture in the air.

Lucy glanced both ways as they crossed the narrow roadway, but Bob suspected it wouldn’t have mattered if a convoy of army truck had been bearing down on them, or a parade of elephants aronded with pink tulle and red fezs. Lucy was getting him into that store, one way or another. He tripped over some gravel that had somehow made its way onto the asphalt, but Lucy’s grip pulled him along. They ran up the rickety wood steps, and she put her hand on the tarnished doorknob.

2. Write one page in which we discover where they’ve come from rrecently and their larger history.

Bob wondered how a brunch date turned into this.

He and Lucy had been eyeing each other for weeks over the stacks in Modern History and sometimes Architecture, depending on which shift it was. She worked in Circulation – high status, bright and chipper attractive people persons, people who knew how to answer any question from “Where can I find Stephen King on audiodisc?” to “Is it true the Periodicals Storage room is haunted?” without pause. He, on the other hand, stayed in Processing, ordering new books and putting jackets and call letters on them as they came in, entering their vital statistics into the computer.

She’d come to him last week on Wednesday, the last day of her workweek, and asked if he’d like to have brunch on Friday. “But brunch, that’s a Sunday thing, isn’t it?” he’d said. “Well, there’s no reason it HAS to be on Sunday, it COULD be on Friday, right?” she’d answered with a sweet smile.  He’d asked Mrs. Strout, the library manager, about her, and found out she’d lost her husband a couple of years ago in some kind of freak accident while on vacation, that she was friendly and a great employee and didn’t have any type of scurrilous gossip following her, which probably meant she didn’t sleep around with other library employees. He was surprised Mrs. Strout would know such things, but was grateful for the information.

As they nibbled bagels and champage at a Congress Street cafe in the wamr summer sun, watching toursts in lobster T Shirts go by, he said something about the afterlife. Nothing serious, really, just small talk, rather than a philosophical exegesis, something along the lines of “That’ll be something I can work on in my next life” when she teased him about his lack of flirtatiousness.

“What about animals?” she said, suddenly very serious.

Sure, he agreeed animals are great, he had a dog once though now he lived in an intown apartment that didn’t allow pets. She pointed out that was his choice, to live somewhere with that restriction, and if he’d really wanted a pet he would’ve found something else, made a different choice, cut back on other priorities. He had to agree, she had a point. “But still, I like animals,” he insisted, feeling it was important.

“You must come see this pet shop, come on!” Lucy cried, and pulled him away by the hand, barely giving him time to throw his pocket change on the table for a tip.

And they ended up here, this sticky desert populated only by the misnamed All Things Bright and Beautiful.
3.  Write one to two pages in which they enter the store and pursue their objective. Either fulfill or not.

Lucy swung the door in and stepped over the threshhold, Bob still clinging to her sweaty hand. They took a few steps forward and the door clicked behind them, leaving them in semi-darkness. “Are you sure they’re open?” he asked timidly. Lucy pulled back a curtain.

As his eyes adjusted, Bob began to see things.  A fish tank, a big one, he thought, lit gently. They stepped forward and looked at the tank, big as a refrigerator turned on its side. Not fish. People. Tiny people. People the size of a grain of rice. Buildings the size of a pack of cigarettes. Cars the size of thimbles. The little rice-people going about their business, obviously intent on whatever it was they were doing – driving, walking, going into buildings, coming out, talking to each other, walking in pairs and threesomes, a cluster of people on a coaster-sized hill, under tiny trees. Bob bent closer and peered at the person nearest him, a tiny man dressed in a tiny business suit carrying a tiny briefcase. No doubt going to a tiny business meeting to sell tiny products.

“What is it?” Bob whispered.

“The afterlife,” said Lucy.

He snapped his head around to look at her. “What are you talking about?”

But she was gone.

What If? Separating Author, Narrator, and Character

When the protagonist is the observer of action – first-person feels like a once-removed narrator, third-person feels like a brain in the room. – flat story, writer is merged with the character who never becomes the focus of the action.

Aha, that sounds important – the narrator (first person) or protagonist (third person) must be the focus of the action. This is where I missed on Money from the Sky, maybe, I made him an observer – but only for the first section, then he became a participant, trying to give it away.

Maybe this is why Drown works because it is happening to Russ, not to someone and Russ is watching. I do like narrators as observers, though.

“…the function of the narrator is to present and somehow translate the action of the story, such that the reader can understand objectively what’s happening, even if the protagonist does not.”

Example, Emma – the third person narrator presents the drama in such a way that the reader understands Knightly is wooing Emma, not Harriet, though Emma thinks he’s after Harriet. I wish I could remember enough of Emma to know what that means – maybe I have it around here somewhere.  For first-person, see Catcher in the Rye. Ok, that I get.

Exercise: Write down “Once upon a time there was” and write a story for 5 minutes. Do it again.

um, ok….

First: once upon a time, there was a Lady of the Monument. She sat in Monument Square on warm sunny days, at the base of the WWII monument for which the square was named, and greeted people who walked by, calling out, “Good morning, sir!” and “Good evening, madam!” and offering help whenever needed – for instance, if a child was crying, she would pull a balloon from her pocket and blow it up for the little one, and then she would dance until the child smiled or at least stopped crying – most often as he looked at her over his mother’s shoulder since the parents never stopped. For the Lady of the Monument was considered crazy. No one who was normal would do such a thing, of course.

Except the Lady was not crazy, she was in fact a sociologist and the bag she kept by her side at the base of the monument was not full of smelly old clothes and worthless mementos but video recording equipment, and she recorded every encounter she made. At the end of the Summer, she stopped appearing in Monument Square because, of course, she had university courses to teach and, also, she had data to collate about her summer on the street. She learned that women feared her, young men ridiculed her, older men were amused by her, and only children accepted her for what she was, a lady who spoke politely and was helpful. She realized that this is the way of the world, that people expect the Lady of the Monument to be crazy, and that saying “Good Morning!” would be considered a sign of madness, and helping people by picking up dropped items and returning them, or distracting cranky children, was not something considered “normal”. This made her tremendously sad, but it also made her a full Professor of Sociology at the university, and thus it was a mixed blessing.

Second: Once upon a time, there was a chiropodist who arrived at his shop every day at 10a.m. and left every afternoon at 5 p.m. But on one random Thursday in September, he left instead at 4:45 p.m. and lay down on the sidewalk outside his office to look at the sky. Although the ground was hard and a bit chilly, and his head hurt where it rested against a crooked brick in the sidewalk and his back did not like the straightness of the ground, he found the sky to be beautiful, and he called out what he saw: “A small white cloud, it looks like a bunny rabbit, oh, now it’s changing, the ear is moving down and it is becoming a greyhound, no, a car, and I think I shall lose my mind if I have to shave one more callous.” He began to cry.

A woman walking by heard what he said, and she lay down on the sidewalk next to him and said, “The sky is the color of a robin’s egg under a tree, not in full sunlight, and I think I shall lose my mind if I have to type ‘Thank you for your cooperation in this matter’ one more time.”

Another woman saw them and also lay down over their heads, and called out, “The sun is pouring warm honey through the sky and if I have to ask ‘Paper or plastic’ one more time I shall go mad.” And person by person, everyone lay down on the sidewalk and noticed something about the sky and admitted what they were most tired of in their lives: “If I have to make love to a man I do not love one more time,” “if I have to talk my parents into letting me have money for jeans one more time,” “if I  have to grade one more paper on William Makepeace Thackaray,” “if I ever am chased out of my country by thugs who would otherwise rape my wife and slice me open like a goat and have to walk across the sand to another shore and spend years in a camp where clean water is the highest hope until at last my name is called and I am brought to America where it is safe…”  And all the people became silent, and ashamed, and they got up and went about their lives remembering how important it is to sometimes look at the sky, even when you are in a terrible hurry.

Then: Rewrite the first paragraph of your favorite fairy tale, removing “Once upon a time” and adding in modern syntax and details to make it realistic.

Huh? What does this have to do with narrators not being the center of attention, merging the author and narrator?  And I don’t really know any fairy tales well enough to rewrite them, and, yeah, I’m being stubborn because I just don’t want to.

Objective: “Once upon a time” creates a discourse that automatically separates us from the characters…
1. We do not mix ourselves up with the narrator
2. We do not mix the scene up iwth our present day lives
3. We are oriented outward and cued to invent characters and/or place distinctly envisioned in our imagination.
Um, I don’t think so – I was creating characters that were basically me, and using Monument Square as the setting.  I don’t see what the exercies has to do with the teach, but I think the chapter is worth it for the “narrator as the center of the action, not the observer” alone. I think this is one of my tendencies, to think I’m the Gatsby narrator. Hey – why did it work for Fitzgerald?

Now, Glasses had elements of real life, and the first draft, as T pointed out, was pretty dismal – “here’s what happened to me”. At that point I changed it and the character became someone else – how I wish it had happened –  and that improved it, I gave her something to do, she became a participant instead of a victim. Yeah, I need to remember that, the protagonist is a participant, the story is about what he does, not about what happens to him.

What If? The Enemy’s Life

Exercise: Write a scene bringing to life someone you hate – personally, or on a grand scale. Make the reader hate her.Then, write the scene in 1st person from the POV of the nasty.

He loved what he did, and no one was safe. The charming family in their cozy home, the poor laborer in his communal tent waiting for the next day’s chores, the student, the earnest, the lazy, the bright. All were targets for the scythe of his tongue, and all were mowed down, night after night, simply because this is what he did. And he was well-paid for it, earning over a million dollars every week, simply for making fun of the gentle and belittling the powerless and skewering the upright. He did not care for truth, or for consequences. Only for the line.

I don’t know how it started. I made fun of someone, and I got a laugh, so I made fun of someone else. It felt good, to get a laugh. I felt part of things, for maybe the first time in my life. It was me and my audience, and I gave them what they wanted. I never meant to hurt people, but suddenly I was doing character assassination on a grand scale, saying things even I didn’t believe, because the laugh is a more powerful high than heroin and I simply had to have it, no matter what the cost.

[this is interesting, it’s part of what I call “finding my compassion” – when someone pisses me off, I try to find a way to see their side. Like the cashier who is rude or stupid, how she would like to be stocking shelves but her back went out and she has to take this job to pay the rent and she’s worried about her child who is home sick and she’d like to be with him but can’t because she can’t afford the time off. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does. I never realized it was a writing technique.]

What If? 76 (The College Edition) Noises Off: The Beauty of Extraneous Sound

What If? 76 (The College Edition) Noises Off: The Beauty of Extraneous Sound
(I’ve used so many different editions now, the numbers are pretty meaningless)
Exercise: Dialogue between to intensely engaged characters, a scene. Work in some noises off. Experiment with different placings in your scene, and listen hard. Whatever their nature, the sounds should help control the pace, postponing the scene’s resolution without losing momentum. They should also relate to something in the dialogue, stengthening or undercutting a theme, making a speaker sound more passionate, more pompous, or more poignant, adding oil to vinegar or vinegar to oil. Try and auction, a TV fundraiser, an ice-cream truck, a train, a music lesson nearby, a wedding reception, the organ at a baseball game, arithmetic class, political rally; dorman at a club, squabble over a parking space.

Objective: To hear the difference between incidental nois and cunning discord. To vary the pacing of your dialogue. To put your characters in the buzz of life around them. Also think about smell (fish frying, honeysuckle) touch (satin, canvas) or sight (light, dark, beauty, ugly).

This is really interesting and a lot of things came to mind when I read this. The sample situation that most grabbed my attention was the club doorman, oddly, since I’ve never been to a club, but the idea of people talking and yelling in the background and the door opening and closing, leaking music and laughter, and an argument going on with the doorman (someone must get in to see someone) – it just feels very rich in possibility. I think Cabaret comes to mind, the Nazis kicking the guy while the band plays, though that isn’t background. When she mentions smell, I immediately thought of Winds of War, the scene where Pug talks to Natalie and Byron about their wedding plans at the seaside cafe and Natalie is struggling against the smell of cooking fish. But she doesn’t mention it until the end of the conversation. Funny, I’ve read 800 pages (plus 800 more in War and Remembrance) so often, I focus in on every word just about – “I’ve always loathed the smell of cooking fish,” I think is the exact quote, the word “loathed” always stood out to me as hypereducated European-influenced melodrama. Then again it was the 40’s, and I guess there were people who talked that way even when they weren’t being theatrical.

We stepped outside to talk. I had only the best of intentions, really: to let her down easy, to make sure she knew she was special and deserved better than me.
The line for the side door went around the block. I lit a cigarette and offered her one, but she shook her head. “Quitting?” I asked.
“No,” she said. She mumbled something else but I couldn’t hear, Broadman the bouncer was yelling at the crowd to step back while he let someone on the list in to the club. I didn’t think it was important enough to ask her to tell me again.
“Look,” I said, “this was fun, but let’s quit while we’re ahead, ok?” Broadman opened the door and “Backatcha Sucka” roared from the door for a couple of beats as the lucky chosen couple slid in. Then the door closed and the relative silence felt naked.
She was crying. Damn it.
“Aww, c’mon, don’t do that, you’re too pretty to cry.” I sucked on my Camel, the orange tip flaring and sputtering off a few sparks. Someone in line was yelling again.
“Didn’t it mean anything to you?” she said. Her makeup was smeared all over her face, black halfmoons under her eyes streaked to smears of smoke on her cheeks all the way to her ears. She looked ridiculous. Broadman yelled, “Back up!” to someone encroaching on the rope line.
“Sure it did, honey, but it didn’t mean everything, y’know? Like, let’s move on while it’s still a happy memory.” I thought I heard that in a movie somewhere, it seemed to work.
Not this time. She sobbed, flopped down on the ground, knelt and planted her butt on the asphalt to the side. I sighed, took another drag and tossed the Camel to the side, then knelt in front of her and patted her shoulder. Someone in the rope line screamed. Or maybe it was a laugh.

Hmmm, can you tell I’ve never been to a club? But I do like the concept. For all the importance of music in Glasses, sound had very little do do with it unless someone was actually playing the glasses.

What If? 72 – Naming the Diner, the Diet, the Dog

Keep programs, phone books, yearbooks, to use for mining names.
Exercise: Give names to the following:
A desert town – Empty Bucket; Spit Bucket; Gritson; Sand Valley; Dry Mount.
A Race Horse – Playing for Keeps; Just Foolin’; Next in Line Please; More or Less; Morgan’s Tanley.
A Literary Magazine – Of Course; Infinity Review; Guerilla Lit.
A New Disease – impossible without symptoms, causes, or a discoverer. Beckett’s droop, ex.
A Football Team – the Pestles (we smash); the Stompers
A Diner – any homey name’s place. Any Place. Our Place. Leeway.
A New Religion – Devotees of the Word; Seekers of Light;

What If? Transportation: getting there isn’t half the fun, it’s boring

Avoid transportation unless it’s important to the story. Ignore stairs, planes, trains, cars, whatever.

Ok. Well, I had a brief bus scene in Drowning, and car stuff in Green, and Mourning Mom has some car travel because it involves a conversation, I guess I’m beginning to realize just how off my thinking is.

What If? 62 (first edition) – Bringing Abstract Ideas to Life

Render ideas in concrete ways with descriptive sensory details and metaphor. Consider: Growing Old in Memento Mori, poverty in Bleak House, racism in The Invisible Man, growing up in Stop-Time, ambition in An American Tragedy, evil and peer pressure in Lord of the Flies.
Exercise: Make several of the following abstract ideas come to life by rendering them in concrete details or images.
racism, injustice, ambition, aging, salvation, poverty, growing up, sexual deceit, wealth, evil.
Objective: to think in concrete terms,  always more effective than rhetoric.

Racism: Aunt Elsie kept knitting while I finished the Thanksgiving dishes. Tom had turned on the television, waiting for some football game, and Aunt Elsie said to no one in particular, “Little colored kids used to be so cute.” I wiped a flowered plate while the songs of Oscar Mayer filled the air. “Damn brats,” said Tom, “can’t even have advertise a hot dog without inviting ’em these days.” “Oh, but I did just love the hair, those braids, they don’t wear those much any more,” said Elsie. “Too bad, too, maybe they’ll come back in style, now they look like animals even when they’re tiny.” She started another row and I put another dish in the rack to dry.

Viola waited until noon but needed a nap, so she put a note on the door for the repairman. Sure enough, just after she started dreaming of Arthur and something about the smell of pipe tobacco – how she missed the smell, she had a pouch, Old John’s cherry vanilla blend, and sometimes she’d burn a little in the sink just to enjoy it again – the buzzer rang and rang and she pulled her walker around and got up slowly, first one leg, then the other, then sat on the edge of the bed for a count of ten, and then went to the door to let him in. But no one was there. She’d written on the note, “it will take me a few minutes to get to the door, please wait” but maybe he hadn’t read the note, or maybe – yes, it was getting dark, had it really taken her all afternoon to cover the short walk from bed to front door?

What If? 61 – the Power of “Seemed” and “Probably”

To indicate the POV character’s inability to truly know what is happening in another character’s mind (B. Gill mystery, the detective thinks the silent injured man’s eyes seemed to indicate something was going on beyond a mere accident) or creates curiousity about why the character seems one way but might be another, lets the reader wonder – in Beattie’s “Afloat” it indicates POV, the girl probably thought X indicating it is not a 3rd person narration, then later the first person narrator is introduced.
I remember a couple of stories where there was a first person narrator even though the story initially seemed third person. I always thought it was a flaw. I don’t really see any particular reason to do it that way; what does it add to the story?
Exercise: Write a scene involving two characters. Have the narrator assume something about the other character entirely different from what the overt behavior implies. One person projects, fantasizes, fears, or suspects another person is thinking something different from what their behavior indicates. (this is fine, but it feels entirely different from the two examples, to me).
Objective: to show how a character can use his imagination.

Mrs. Miller was impatient as the morning wore on. April should have been here early, but no, it was almost noon and there was no word from her. Just as lunch was delivered to Mrs. Miller’s room by a blue-garbed nurse’s aid, April breezed in, all smiles. “Hi, Ma, I’m sorry, I tried to get here sooner but there was some mess at the office and my boss just wouldn’t let me off the phone and then the traffic, did you know about the construction on the turnpike? It’s awful! I sat almost still for a half hour! But I’m here now, how are you feeling?” She held her mother’s hand and leaned one hip against the bed. They both ignored the covered food tray. Mrs. Miller didn’t want to give April an excuse to leave quickly. She wasn’t sure why April didn’t notice the large tray and plastic cover, as big as a boom box, on the table at her waist, or the smell of something – chicken, she thought – but if April didn’t mention it, she wouldn’t.

But April did. “Have you finished lunch? Was it good, is the food all right?” She picked up the cover and saw the tray was untouched, the silverware still wrapped in plastic, tea bags still nestled in paper covers awaiting release into hot water. “Oh, Ma, you haven’t eaten! Aren’t you hungry?”

Mrs. Miller wasn’t sure what to say; if she said she wanted to eat, would the girl leave? If she said she wasn’t hungry, would the meal be taken away? Or would it simply congeal into greasy clots by the time April left? She was hungry, though she was hungrier for April’s attention, as usual. She thought the truth might be the easiest. “They just brought it in, hon, just before you came.” She was careful to not indicate that she wanted to eat, nor that she wasn’t interested in food. She would let April decide.

“Well, then, I think you should have your lunch!” said April, more cheerfully than made sense. “I tell you what, I’ll run down to the cafeteria and get a muffin or maybe a sandwich or just coffee, and come back, and we can have lunch together, would that be all right?”

Mrs. Miller pushed her fingers against her lips but the tears came anyway. “Yes, dear,” she said, embarrassed as tears ran down her fingers.

“Mom, what is it, are you in pain?”

“No, honey, not at all, I’m just… overwrought, it’s been a difficult few days, after all.” She thanked whatever God there was for granting her daughter a heart and the impulse to do something kind for her today, because it was exactly the medicine she needed.

What If? 60 – Handling Problems of Time and Space

Traditional rules: episodes that show important behavior in the characters, to make events dramatic as in theatre, or to bring news that changes the situation should be dealt with in scenic, or eyewitness manner. Stretches of time or occurrances that are secondary to the story’s development are handled by means of what is called a narrative bridge.

Dialogue is the direct report of speech; indirect discourse is the summary of what was said.

Scenic: Now they were at the ford, the rain was falling, the river was flooded. He got out of the jeep and stared at the water he needed to cross to get to the place where the road started again.

Narrative summary: The journey took two days and included a flooded out road.

Dialogue: “Now how are we going to cross this flood?” said Lisa. “I’ll get the rope and tie the axle to that tree and pull,” said John.

Indirect discourse: When they got to the flooded section of the road, John said he’d bring the rope around a tree and they’d get across. Lisa wasn’t convinced but it worked.

Ok, this is one of those things that seems really important and I never heard of it before. It’s kind of common sense – important stuff is related in as fine detail as possible, and stuff that just gets things from A to B maybe with some atmosphere can be summarized.

Exercise: Indicate how you’d handle the parts of this story:
In her final year of medical school in the 70’s Ellen fell in love with an intern at the teaching hospital. His name was Gamal and he came from Lebanon. Although Gamal was not political himself, his younger brothers were involved in radical Arab politics.
Ellen’s New England Jewish family had always been liberal.  Her father,  Mark, was a lawyer who’d defended Black Panthers and anti-war activists.  Her mother, Sarah, was also liberal, and they were all ardently pro-Israel.
When Ellen brought Gamal home for the winter holidays, the situation grew very tense as one by one Israel, religion, poliitics, and child-rearing cropped up in conversation. Although Ellen was uncomfortable at times, she felt that love was more important than politics.
Mark and Sarah were polite in Gamal’s compay but worried in private. They’d always supported Ellen’s decisions but now thought she was about to ruin her life.
The wedding was set for June at Ellen’s parents house in Connecticut.  It would be a small affair because relatives on both sides would refulse to come. But Mark and Sarah rationalized a lot and put the best face on it.
The wedding day came. It was going to be a civil ceremony followed by a garden party.
In the morning, Mark heard on the radio there was an attack on a plane and Gamal’s brothers were arrested as suspects.
(resolve the story)

I’d summarize meeting and falling in love, maybe with a brief scene or dialogue snipet;  I’d show a scene where Ellen finds out his brothers are radicals, I’d show at least one scene with the parents and how uncomfy they are with all the topics, maybe summarize several others; I’d show the parents worrying in private, I’d summarize the wedding plans,  I’d show the scene where Mark comes in and tells Ellen what he heard on the radio. For resolving, well, I’d have Gamal run off to help his brothers, and have Ellen offer to go with him but find out he doesn’t want her, and have her realize it’s a good thing this happened before the wedding rather than after since even though love is more important than politics, blood was in this case going to trump all and she’d find herself helpless more often than not. Which is a pretty boring resolution but it’s a pretty trite story. At least it was when it was originally included in this book in 1990. 

I’m working out of the 1990 first edition again since I had to take the second edition back to the library, but I have it on order and it should arrive later this week. I’ll be very interested to see if there are any notes on this exercise or any examples of student work. I get the sense maybe I’m showing too much and should be summarizing more.

I also wonder if I can use this technique (a brief text out line of the story, write what to summarize and what to show) for Mourning Mom.

What If? 79 – The Terrain of your Stories

Exercise: reread all of the stories you’ve written to date, noting in particular their locales, types of dwellings, roads, trees, weather. Draw a map – how far does the character in one story live from the character in another? How might they meet? Consider writing a story of this interaction. Or write a story in which why they could never meet is explored.
Objective: stories can feed other stories.

Most of my stories are typical suburban middle class things, typically my area  or taken from where I’ve lived in the past. Green was about MA, and then later Colorado, and I checked out the town of Arvada carefully so I’d find a blue-collar location near the airport for Jamie. 8:27 was set in downtown Portland, in a very specific spot, though there’s no reason it has to be there, it could be a fictitious spot. Drowning is set in Portland, based on a real story, I know exactly the location of the wharf (I worked there in an office for a few months as a temp) and the gorge Sally brought us to for our post-easter dinner walk was the setting for the final scene; her neighborhood in general is the setting. Glasses could take place anywhere. Most of my stories could. For Mourning Mom, I want to make it dry and dusty, and kind of dust-bowl, dried-out Oklahoma, but since I’ve never been there, that might not be a good idea. My Cook story is mythical and takes place in an imaginary world, with a blend of Asian, African, and Latin elements as well as a Western sensibility that I can not get away from. Same with Tsin the Nightingale, a mixed bag of mythical elements in a fictional place.

“We are All About Wendy Now” is very familiar to me, but not the place, which is an office and could be anywhere – the writer was Canadian so maybe it isn’t Southern or California or southwest, but it sure could be pretty much any large city with a home office in it.

I don’t use location as carefully as I might, it’s either “anywhere” or mythical. I’ve never been really drawn to location-specific stories. Into Silence had a very specific location in time and place, and it was nice but it was secondary for me. I remember reading Boar Taint and was surprised it took place in Michigan, since I’d been reading it as the South all along, ignoring clues about snow. That’s my prejudice there.

As for characters meeting, it’s not something I’m interested in doing. I know someone who’s written a collection about inhabitants of a small town, and it was good. And TJ and his Appalachian Trail collection. And Cliff and his Washington stories. For me, Green and Drowning are flip sides of the same coin, but it has little to do with location, they’re just about situations of “good” kids coming into the influence of “bad” kids and in one case the bad kid turns out to be pretty good, it’s the impossible dream, and in the other it’s the worst nightmare. They happen to be located in the same place for most of the stories. But it’s like Wendy, it’s the characters and atmosphere, not physical location.

What if? 73 – My Pet

This exercise works best if you do it first then discuss and analyze.
Write a composition on the subject “My Pet.” It must be a pet you have never owned. Describe how you got it, what it eats, where it sleeps, what tricks it does, how it gets along with your family, friends, and coworkers, what it looks like.

Many years ago, I heard a whisper: “You need a wife.” Yes, I thought, I do need a wife, someone to clean up after me, fix me meals, cheer me on, support me in my quest through the wild world, someone who will cuddle up to me on cold nights and bring me iced drinks on hot days, someone who will have but one need: to fulfill my needs. I kept hearing the whisper, and one day followed the sound of the voice to a strange place where, indeed, I found a suitable wife. This wife looked just like me, which surprised me; I did not think I would be a suitable candidate for wifehood, having failed many times to subvert my needs to those of others. But, the voice assured me, this wife is different, it is not you, it embodies all the qualities you need, and requires little other than food, water, sanitary facilities, and occasional exercise. Just like a cat. You can even go away for short periods and leave this wife alone, as long as you leave sufficient food and water.

I brought my wife home and it immediately fixed dinner for me: steak and salad with roasted potatoes and a tiny brownie for dessert. And it sat with me and ate the same thing, agreeing with me in a soft, kind voice, that yes, the steak could use more salt and the salad would be better without onions, and it would remember these things and improve as time went on until it served me tremendous meals every day. I was pleased.

At night, my wife wanted to share my bed, and I was not sure how to address this. After all, I am fastidious and wasn’t sure if I wanted the annoyance of movement, hair, and noise. But I allowed it, figuring I would purchase a bed for it later in the week. As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary. We did quite fine in one bed.

My wife learned many tricks, in addition to fixing meals and providing a clean house, over the first few weeks. It knew when to leave me alone to write or cry or get drunk, and it knew when to ask me what was wrong and listen to my harangues. It knew when to encourage me to try again, and when to hint that I should change directions, very gently, without indicating that I had gone too far already along a barren path. I began to succeed wildly at work, creating stories that charmed readers and wowed editors and won prizes and made money. And in my classes, I was able to weed the wheat from the chaff, to grade papers in half the time because I no longer dallied over whether an essay was acceptable or not: I learned to trust my instincts, because after all, my wife did.

I was on top of the world. And the problem with that, you’ll recall, is that there is only one way to go: down.

And down I went. I met a pleasant acquaintance at a party given by one of the magazines proudly displaying my talent. We came to my beautiful, clean, tastefully appointed home, and my wife, instead of coming to the door to greet me as was its usual custom, hid in the mudroom.  I thought I heard whimpering at one point; my acquaintance did, as well, which prompted the question, “Is there someone else here?” I denied this of course, and closed the door to the mudroom, but when I returned to the salon, my acquaintance was at the door making excuses. I was quite disappointed.

My wife, it seems, was more than disappointed, for the next day, it ran away. This crushed me, as I need its reassurance, not to mention its timely tasty meals and clean clothes, to allow me to continue my conquering of the world. I walked through the streets of my neighborhood, unable to even call its name since I had never bothered to give it one and until now had never considered that it might need one. I could not find it. I visited the city shelter for naught. I considered putting up posters, but was afraid misguided souls might turn me in to myself.

I came to accept it in time. I had lost my wife.

I will get another one, some day, when I am ready. Perhaps first I will reconnect with the acquaintance whose visit precipitated my wife’s departure, see if that has possibilities. I wonder if someone else could ever accept what value my wife had to me, and that no matter what friendships, romances, and relationships I may have, I will need a wife, too.

Now let’s see what I did wrong.

What is the function of the pet in your response?
To take care of the MC. And of course to skewer how men, some men, see the function of wives.

Is the pet in your story like or unlike you?
Like, deliberately. The perfect complement. 

What is the function of the character, relation to its owner, how could it be the basis for a short story?
It’s a satire. The idea is to have people think how ridiculous it is while at the same time thinking, gee, that would be nice. Because I have often thought if I had a wife, someone to take care of the bare essentials, I would be much farther along in the world. It’s the little stuff that gets you down – having a great idea or talent or a work ethic is fine, but then it’s time to go for an interview and there’s a spot on your tie and you’re screwed. Somehow society evolved to where wives take care of everything so husbands can conquer the world. Then of course women decided to do some conquering of their own, except now they have to take care of both husband and wife because it’s sure no husband is going to take care of them while they work their way up the corporate ladder – and once there, someone’s going to sneer at them for not making homemade pasta or not going to Mommy and Me class with the kids.

Wow. I didn’t know that was still in there – and that’s all from the 70’s. Hmm.

What If? 75 – Go Ahead, Yawn

Passages and stories so powerful they have physical effects, not just drawing the reader in emotionally and intellectually. Like, making the reader yawn. Or feel hungry. KV gives the example of the “dental Floss” story a student wrote – a nun has some dental floss stuck in her teeth and keeps trying to get it out all day as she goes about doing other things.

Exercise: Write a passage that invokes a physical response from the reader.

Hah! Ok, I did this a few times, I remember a couple of Z reviewers told me they were hungry after they read Soup, and one felt stiff and sore while reading the bathroom scene in Drowning. I remember reading a story – it might be something I dreamed because I’ve never been able to find it, but I think it was called “A Glass of Water” and it might’ve been by KV himself, but it would’ve had to have been in Triple A Magazine or Diners Club or Modern Maturity or RD because those were the only stories I had access to, unless I read it in school and forgot – some guy was really thirsty and for some reason his water was shut off and he kept walking around trying to find water but there was no water, not in garden hoses or swimming pools, and that story made me thirsty. The chicken broth scene in The Bell Jar has always made me crave chicken broth after I’ve been sick, which is where Soup came from in fact. And Wallace’s Burn story, wow, did that give me the creepy crawlies in various areas that I don’t even have.

I think I’ll incorporate a food thing in the Cook story. And the Mourning Mom story, her fear in the car, I want to really get that well, and the sense of digging.