Monday, April 19, 2010

Writing on the Slant

Possibly, my greatest talent in the arena of coordination and, well, luck, is skee-ball. I'm not like great at it or anything, but I am good enough so that whenever we go to Hickory Dickory Dock (our local version of Chuck E. Cheese, but with fewer drunken brawls), my three-year-old insists I toss a couple for him. He's desperate for the tickets he can trade in for tootsie rolls and plastic army men.

I take the first ball. As I rear back and aim, I'm also watching my three-year-old climb the next alley. I'm listening to my seven-year-old ask permission to run off to the other side of the arcade. I'm keeping my eye on my purse. My mommy-radar is on, screening all strangers as potential kidnappers and watching out for big kids looking to push little kids around. I'm calculating roughly what time it is, planning what I'll cook for dinner, speculating whether or not my husband will get home from work on time. I'm thinking I'll call my sister on the way home. My three-year-old is pulling on my sleeve. I aim, fire, aim, fire, aim, fire. I tear off the tickets when they reel out. I never actually think about what I'm doing.

There's a similar disconnect when it comes to writing fiction: we have to relax our focus a little. Allow for the right kind of distractions; avoid over-thinking. This is especially true when it comes to constructing our characters. We must write them on the slant, giving them a chance to surprise us, which is kind of a tall order, if you think about it. After all, we created them, right? We have to find a way to make it up and not make it up at the same time.

Here are a few writing exercises I plan on unleashing on a short-story class I'm starting tonight, all designed to help you come at your character indirectly:
  1. I Don't Know Why I Stole It: Your character walks into a store, a family member's house/bedroom, an office, a coat closet, a supermarket and steals something of no obvious value. Maybe it's a plastic seashell bracelet. An owl figurine. A pouch of chewing tobacco. A spoon. Do a little free-writing, describing the object, where it was stolen, and a bit, in the character's point of view, explaining why he stole it--or why he doesn't know why he stole it.
  2. Party: Your character is at a party. Describe the party. Is it a kid's birthday party? A cocktail party? A college kegger? A little old lady's garden party? Your character either really wants to be there or is there out of obligation, or for employment purposes--maybe your character is the hired entertainment: the stripper, the magician, the caterer. In any case, there is a person at the party your character is avoiding. Describe the person and your character's thoughts about the person. Show your character in scene, ducking the other person, or maybe running right into them. Throughout the scene, try to inhabit your character's thoughts and his/her body: what does the carpet feel like under his feet? How's the food? Is the music too loud? Does your character's smile feel too stiff? Is your character getting drunk?
  3. Okay, Here's a Sex Scene for You: I generally don't like writing sex scenes. They just aren't terribly interesting...unless something goes wrong. Or, try this: Write a scene where a couple is having sex for the last time. Likely, they won't know it's the last time, yet, you as the writer know it and knowing it will color how you describe the scene. Or just one of them will. Or, maybe one of them comes to that realization halfway through the scene. Or at the end of it. Again, you need to fully inhabit your character's point of view here. Besides the obvious, your character will notice things: the quality of light or darkness in the room, smells and sounds drifting in from other places, odd little sexy and unsexy details like a mole on a shoulder or stubble on an unshaven face.

By the way, Madison Smartt Bell wrote a great essay on a similar concept for Tin House.

15 comments:

sherylmonks said...

These are genius, Susan. Your class is going to love them.

Kathy said...

So we should not only tell the truth slant, but also learn it slant? I think I'll unleash your assignments on myself and my characters. So far everything I know about them has come through writing about them. Thanks for the ideas and for the Bell essay, too.

Susan Woodring said...

Sheryl, thank you!! I'm really looking forward to tonight's class--

Susan Woodring said...

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Emily Dickinson

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Cirrcuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---

Susan Woodring said...

Kathy, everything's slant when it comes to writing, isn't it??

Let me know how your characters respond...

Jessie Carty said...

you really do have the most fabulous exercises! as a narrative poet i want to try them too!

Susan Woodring said...

Thanks, Jessie. I hope you find them useful??

Jessie Carty said...

they are useful! i am keeping track of them in case i need to teach another class, giving you credit of course!

sherylmonks said...

Great idea for writing a sex scene. Makes me sad just thinking about it. I also love Ann Pancake's sex scene in STRANGE AS THIS WEATHER HAS BEEN, in an old chicken coop. About the unsexiest place you can imagine.

Kathy said...

I checked out Ann Pancake's book on the web and then put it on my to-read list. Thanks for mentioning it.

I also just realized the first two and the last two lines of the E.D. poem are the only ones I've remembered all these years. Reading it just now was almost like finding a new poem.

Susan Woodring said...

Sheryl, I'm glad you mentioned Ann Pancake. There is so much to love about that book, I'd actually forgotten the chicken-coop sex scene. I need to go back and re-read. Note to self: scour my favorite books for bizarre/sad/funny/poignant sex scenes and blog about them. What do you think?

Kathy, you're going to love that book. And, it was sort of nice for me to reconnect with E.D., too. She's one of those you read in high school, like the Great Gatsby, and then sort of move on. I need to spend a bit more time with her...

sherylmonks said...

Oh, you'll love Ann Pancake, Kathy. Her story collection is even better, I think. GIVEN GROUND. Really is like reading poetry. I can't think of anyone else who reinvents language so much or so well.

And yes, Susan, I think that's a great idea. In fact, I would love to find a blog dedicated solely to pulling examples from great works that way. Wouldn't that be invaluable?

Susan Woodring said...

Well, you know, there's this really great blogger over at 50 Shimmering Pages...maybe she'd be up for starting a second blog??

jessica handler said...

Excellent advice about writing a sex scene from this advice. It's sort of a non-sex sex scene.

Susan Woodring said...

Jessica, yes, exactly--a non-sex sex scene. Thanks for the comment, and thanks for the link on your blog! So glad you find this stuff useful--