Monday, February 28, 2011

The Story Machine: Part II Cont'd

Here's the draft.

I drafted it in one sitting, this morning, working for maybe an hour-and-a-half or so. Mostly, I wanted to work all the way through to the end, to get a working draft, and to really try out my character's voice. I decided to go 1st person simply because the story was leaning that way, or the voice of it was.

Before I began writing, I heard the first line in my head, and followed it. I haven't yet edited a word.

No title yet:

I seen them come into the store. The mother, all buttoned-up beige and mauve lipstick, stick-straight hair, a woman wanting to look like she’s not a woman, like she’s trying to erase any distinguishing features, any clue. The older girl, dark-haired and fussy. Braces. Squeaky-voiced. And then, the little girl, her looking lost already, tagging along behind the other two. Clear from the start she wasn’t the reason for this shopping trip. The older one likely needed supplies for a school project. Or the mother needed malox or something. Pantyhose. I seen the three of them, and I thought: that girl’s in la-la land.

She looked like the kind of girl like my girl was, growing up. Saw a zippy pencil case on one of the front display tables, Back to School, all the signs proclaim, like pepsi and Jaclyn Smith brand curtains are back to school essentials, but this girl, seeing the pencil case, picking it up, and she’s not in this Morganton Kmart on this crummy muggy August afternoon in the year of our Lord 2009. No, she’s gone, she’s gone to no place, that’s where. Place doesn’t exist for her, not as we know it. Beyond the pencil case, there’s nothing. I could see it, looking at her. My daughter, my Talia, named for the newscaster who brought me reports of the Berlin wall coming down, was always like that, always dropping off into white space. Completely absorbed in a pencil case. Now, she’s twenty years old and she and her little girl live me with and Talia works at a daycare where they let her bring her little girl, my Brody Ann—that’s what she named her—for free. When I bring home a brochure for the local community college’s phlebotomy program or I write down the 800 numbers to the online schools for medical transcription, she says, Yeah, yeah, yeah, mama. She don’t see how good it is, she has me. She has me to help out with Brody Ann, me to tuck everyone in at night. Me to keep the grizzly bear away, I say, and she laughs. It’s our neighbor, a fat man, covered in hair, who walks with his head down, as if he don’t want to be seen, from his car to his door every evening when he comes home from work. He works for a plumber, which surprises me. That massive, dark-haired man, what kind of bathroom sink is he going to wiggle under? People come to their jobs for reasons that are foreign to me.

I make the joke about the big grizzly bear to break the tension, and then, the matter is forgotten. So it goes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, mama, she says about everything. I don’t like the name Brody Ann, and I told her so, back when she was pregnant. She instructs Brody Ann to call me Granny Lee-Lee because my name is LeeAnn, and I hate it. When I tell her this, she says, damn, mama. Who cares? I say, I want to be plain old Grandma.

But, anyway, back to The Family of the Lost Little Girl. I seen them come in. Seen the little girl stop, distracted, at the pencil cases, the pencils with oversized, sparkly erasers, seen the other one trudge along, behind her mother who is pushing the cart and steering hard left in front of the cosmetics: she’s a pro at this, the shopping game. She knows her aisles. Pauses a moment. Come on, she says. She says the little girl’s name, calls to her, but I don’t catch it. Already, my check-out’s full again. That’s the way it works most days, you have a minute or two to look around, to notice that your feet hurt or that the backs of your knees ache and that there’s an a rectangle of light far above, up there in the ceiling, going dim, blinking a little like they do when they’re almost out, and I’m pretty sure it will cause me a headache, and then you notice a few of the customers coming, just watch them, or the customers checking out at the other checkout—even on our busiest days, my manager only opens two check-outs, to keep from having to schedule too many checkers—and you think about what’s waiting for you at home, whether you have the makings for a western omelet in your refrigerator or not, if you should stop at the store, and then you think, maybe I should pick up a diet coke? And suddenly, just like that, there’s an old lady moving like one of those gargantuan dinosaurs who used to take a half-a-billion years to lift its reptile-head to the leaves at the top of the tree. She’s putting her items on the mini-conveyor belt, spearmint gum and Martha Stewart bath towels in peridot green, Special K breakfast bars. I can’t turn on the conveyor yet—she hasn’t reached the end—and there are three customers behind her, shifting their wait from foot to foot and going into that blank-waiting space, their faces gone distant, and they are impatient too, huffy, as if this act, this pronounced exhaling and eye-rolling, will encourage the old lady to move faster or as if, with that hint of displeasure, my manager will fly in, order up another check-out line.

I checked for a while, moved past the old lady, whom I noticed, when she was leaving, was wearing bedroom slippers, and then rang up four twelve-packs of Sundrop, on special. I got real busy and forgot about the little girl until something brushed up behind me, something come into the space behind the counter where the customers aren’t supposed to be. Something that didn’t smell like or have the twitchy-thin feel of my manager sneaking in behind me, checking something on my register, looking for the coupons we handed out to those who made a one-dollar contribution to the March of Dimes when they checked out. This was a small person, a flutter. I turned around, and there she was.

What's the matter, honey? I asked, kneeling down to her. She was crying, jagging on her breath the way little kids do, her hair stringier and blonder than I’d noticed before, her face crumpled up and wet from her tears, flushed pink. It took me a minute to connect her to the girl I’d seen come in earlier, and when I did, I said, Where’s your mom, honey? Where’s your sister?

She didn’t know, she was lost. She couldn’t say any of this, but only cried and nodded when I guessed the right thing, and my customers were piled up, but I just kept whispering to the little girl that it was going to be all right, and she was such a cute little girl, such pretty shoes! I’ve wondered since then, why I chose to remark on the little girl’s shoes to comfort her, but it’s something I know about little girls: they want us grown-ups to notice things like their shoes. The customers in line were losing their sympathy quickly—no one would say it, but they were wishing, I could tell, that I would hand the little girl over to someone else, some lost-child-authority they imagined we kept stored away somewhere, and there was a protocol for me to follow—I should get my manager—but in that second, I couldn’t tear myself away from that little girl. I thought, suddenly: I should quit my job.

In that moment, that little girl sobbing before me, keeping herself wrapped up, half-afraid of letting a stranger touch her, half wanting me too, I could tell, half wanting me to swoop her up and give her a minute to catch her breath, leaning her little head on my shoulder, but really, she was too old for that, and besides, she was mostly scared. I knew her mother was somewhere close by, scared half out of her mind, because it happens to every one of us, every mother knows how it feels to turn and find an empty spot in the supermarket where your own child was standing not a minute before, even later, when I found out the mother had actually left the building, was in the parking lot before either she or her older daughter realized they were missing the girl, even then I thought: look what she’s done to her mother. Look what she’s done to her. I felt that way, sorry for her, and irritated, too, what had she done, wandering off like that? And then, I thought: I will quit this job and take my own self to cooking school or else go in for a substitute-teacher’s job or a job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office and I would let the big grizzly bear get my baby. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Talia says. Yeah.

I was still trying to coax the little girl’s name out of her when the mother came. I had a thought I would announce it myself over the PA—fuck the manager—but here come the mama with the older girl looking properly shocked, her knowing better than the little, lost one what her mother had done, had left her little girl in the Kmart.

I tried to catch her mama’s eye when she come. After she’d stumbled forward in all that good, department-store beige, and swept up her little girl, who wasn’t really little at all, that I saw. I saw that the girl, maybe eight or nine years old, was too big to get lost, to wander away. That she was too big for her mama to do the next thing she done, which was to carry her out to the car, the other one walking, head down, beside her, quieted now. Shamed, a little. But, I was trying to catch this mama’s eye to pass on something of a comfort, a solace. I wanted her to know a thing she already knew: this mothering this is no picnic. She who had no thought, I guessed, about how things might be when the oldest turned twenty. If she’d be any less likely to leave one behind in the Kmart, or if there comes a time, when one wants to. When one simply wants to slough it off, all the mothering. Erase it all, begin again, solitary.

I think that little girl come to me and not the manager, standing at the customer service desk, and not the other checker, a young girl, even younger than my Talia, because I looked, to her, as near her mother as anyone. I could guess we’re near the same age, that we both have that settled-in motherly look about us, and the little girl saw this because she needed to. She didn’t know, I realized, not yet, that her mama was a boring dresser, that her hair was ugly. Or, it didn’t count.

It was the other checker later that I learned what the mother and the older girl had been shopping for, what they’d come to their Kmart today to purchase. Braziers. White cotton, no-padding ones, bralettes, they’re called. And then, I pictured the whole thing: how they come here, to the Kmart across town, probably, from where they lived, the two of them slinking away, little girl coming along either because she begged to, or because they had no place to put her, searching it out, the perfect 32-AA. It’s what we give our children, or try to: a license to grow up. Yeah, yeah, yeah, my Talia says. Yeah.

Come back tomorrow. We'll get started on crafting scene and deepening the conflict.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Story Machine: Part II

After I've written my 500-word or so autobiographical snippet, it's time to begin the work of fictionalizing.

Which can be tough. The danger with starting this way--with a true story--is that we tend to resist veering from the way it really happened.

Yet, our number one priority from here on out has to be the story. The story. We no longer care what really happened.

Changes for draft number two: point of view and setting.

Again, let's defer to Antonya Nelson who talks about the "default modes" in fiction. In terms of time and pov, Antonya says we should set our stories in present-day time and use close third pov unless we have reason to do otherwise. At this point--and it may change--I'll use Antonya's default modes. So, I'm going to move the story from early 1980's to today, and I'll replace my first person pov with close third.

Big changes, in a way, but easy enough. And, the story hasn't yet changed substantially.

I want it to. I want to create something.

So, here's my substantial change: I want to make the pov character the store clerk.

I have my reasons for this. First, I think little-girl-gets-lost-in-Kmart is enough meat--just enough meat, actually--to be the secondary story, but my gut is telling me it can't stand by itself. Also, I like the idea of the lost little girl providing a time-frame for the story. Ann Hood calls this the story's container. The story has a natural beginning: little girl lost. Then movement: looking for parents, comforting lost girl. Then ending: the resolution of the little girl lost, i.e., she is reunited with her family.

Your story needs this, your reader needs this: some implied or stated structure. A container. We feel safe now, knowing the story will end. Now, we can focus on our sales clerk.

Another reason I chose the store clerk: I have to make her up. All I remember about the real cashier was her leaning in to hear me and then her making the loud-speaker call, her spitting out some barely recognizable version of my last name.

Now, before I draft again, I have some work to do: Who is this woman? I need to give her an age and a situation in life. I need to give her a reason to have this story written about her. I need to investigate. The age-old character question: What's at stake for her, right now? What does she stand to lose? To gain?

Why should we care about her at all?

Charles Baxter says: create an interesting character and give said character an interesting problem.
Some questions to ask your character:
Why are you in this story?
What are you afraid of?
What are you hoping for? Waiting for?
What are you tired of trying to make happen?
What might you do or think or feel in this story that will surprise even you?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Story Machine: Part I

This summer at Tin House, Antonya Nelson gave a talk on a ten-step short story writing process she'd developed for her undergraduates. The talk was excellent, her suggestions inspired, and her little asides about fiction-writing were perhaps the most valuable part of all. A highlight of the week for me.

What I'm going to do here and with a beginning fiction class I'm teaching is to do something like what Antonya talked about but I'm taking huge liberties with it, changing it quite a bit. But, I love the premise so much, I have been wanting to replicate it in some way, to try it out and also modify it to fit my own writing and teaching styles. So, here goes.

Part I: Write a 500-word or so account of an autobiographical event. Antonya gave the example of a tornado she and her family experienced in the family car, parked in a Baskin-Robins parking lot; I chose a time I got lost in a department store as a kid.

Here's my example:

Let’s see: I was about seven years old when I got lost in Kmart. I was a dreamy kid, given to wandering, to getting caught up in my own little fantasy-world, to losing track of real-life. I was there with my mother and my older sister, who must have been about twelve at the time. In my memory, they were bra-shopping, but that might not be completely right, especially since if they were bra-shopping, I might have been more inclined to stick around, undergarments being such a fascinating thing to me at this age and I was also tuned into anything that made my sister uncomfortable or vaguely grown-upish—I would have followed along to be a pest if nothing else. Or, maybe I did exactly that—followed along and made my little jokes or simply gawked—I was always getting caught gawking as a kid. Maybe my sister finally got tired of me and told me to leave her alone and I complied, or maybe, my mother, sensing she would get the job accomplished more easily if I weren’t there, or just wanting to give herself a moment’s peace, produced a quarter from her purse and told me to go watch a cartoon. At this time, in this particular Kmart—this would have been Effingham, Illinois, most likely—they had a little booth in the children’s clothing department where you could insert a quarter into the slot and watch a cartoon. In my memory, it was Tom and Jerry, but I could be wrong about this, too. Maybe it was Bugs Bunny. I used to watch a lot of Bugs Bunny as a kid. I was seven years old, I had an older sister who was just starting to do things like shop for bras. In a few years, I would fake crushes on her boyfriends, I would pretend to snoop on her though I, in all truth, could not imagine her ever actually kissing a boy. She was my big sister, part of ordinary life to me. Boy-kissing was for television. I was obnoxious—What’s up, Doc?--I’m sure, to my mortified, breast-bud-budding sister. No wonder they left me in the store.

They did. To this day, it still astonishes me: I finished up my cartoon, Bugs or Tom and Jerry or maybe Yosemite Sam, another favorite, and exited my little booth, probably with the intention of hitting mom up for another quarter, or hoping like mad it was time to go home already—in those days, my shopping stamina was very limited. I looked about: no mom, no Shelley. Just shoppers and rounds of dark Lee jeans—they only had dark-wash in these days—and the bright, linoleum-tiled floor. I approached one of the registers, crying, and, nodding yes when the sales clerk asked me, was I lost?, I mispronounced my own last name. Something like Susan Yagler or Susan Yeppinstire or the like, not my real name, Yergler, was called out over the intercom.

Another surprise: they were in the parking lot before they realized they had forgotten me. When I tell the story, I like to say it was probably because I was such a good child, so meek and quiet, it was easy to forget I’d been there with them in the first place. More likely, first-bra-shopping—or whatever kind of shopping they were actually doing—was just that chaotic, tense, those two. My mother and sister, each worked up, annoyed enough with each other, to make it all the way to the parking lot before they realized they’d forgotten something.

Try it: Write a couple of pages about an experience you've had or been witness to.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Raymond Carver and Mercy

Relationships characterize.

In this passage from Raymond Carver's "Careful," a man suffering from having his ear plugged up--and from acute loneliness--is tended to by his estranged wife.

“Don’t be scared,” she said. “It’s just some of your landlady’s baby oil, that’s all it is. I told her what was wrong, and she thought this might help. No guarantees,” Inez said. “But maybe this’ll loosen things up in there. She said it used to happen to her husband. She said this one time she saw a piece of wax fall out of his ear, and it was like a big plug of something. It was ear wax, was what it was. She said try this. And she didn’t have any Q-tips. I can’t understand that, her not having any Q-tips. That part really surprises me.”

“Okay,” he said. “All right. I’m willing to try anything. Inez, if I had to go on like this, I think I’d rather be dead. You know? I mean it, Inez.”

“Tilt your head all the way to the side now,” she said. “Don’t move. I’ll pour this in until your ear fills up, then I’ll stopper it with this dishrag. And you just sit there for ten minutes, say. Then we’ll see. If this doesn’t do it, well, I don’t have any other suggestions. I just don’t know what to do then.”

“This’ll work,” he said. “If this doesn’t work, I’ll find a gun and shoot myself. I’m serious. That’s what I feel like doing, anyway.”

“Farther,” she said. He held on to the chair for balance and lowered his head even more. All of the objects in his vision, all of the objects in his life, it seemed, were at the far end of this room. He could feel the warm liquid pour into his ear. Then she brought the dishrag up and held it there. In a little while, she began to massage the area around his ear. She pressed into the soft part of the flesh between his jaw and skill. She moved her fingers to the area over his ear and began to work the tips of her fingers back and forth. After a while, he didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there. It could have been ten minutes. It could have been longer. He was still holding on to the chair. Now and then, as her fingers pressed the side of his ehad, he could feel the warm oil she’d poured in there wash back and forth in the canals inside his ear. When she pressed a certain way, he imagined he could hear, inside his head, a soft, swishing sound.

“Sit up straight,” Inez said. He sat up and pressed the heel of his hand against his head while she liquid poured out of his ear. She caught it in the towel. Then she wiped the outside of his ear.

The exercise: In exacting detail and using as small an action or series of actions as possible, draft a scene where one character shows mercy to another character.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Listen: you were wonderful.

Gestures characterize.

From Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road:

Here's the situation: Frank Wheeler, having just witnessed his young wife April's painfully disastrous acting debut in a small-town play, arrives at her dressing room and looks for something to say to her.

She was alone, sitting very straight at a mirror and removing her make-up. Her eyes were still red and blinking, but she gave him a small replica of her curtain-call smile before turning back to the mirror. "Hi," she said. "You ready to leave?"

He closed the door and started toward her with the corners of his mouth stretched tight in a look that he hoped would be full of love and humor and compassion; what he plannd to do was bend down and kiss her and say "Listen: you were wonderful." But an almost imperceptible recoil of her shoulders told him that she didn't want to be touched, which left him uncertain what to do with his hands, and that was when it occurred to him that "You were wonderful" might be exactly the wrong thing to say--condescending, or at the very least naive and sentimental, and much too serious.

"Well," he said instead. "I guess it wasn't exactly a triumph or anything, was it?" And he stuck a cigarette jauntily in his lips and lit it with a flourish of his clicking Zippo.

"I guess not," she said. "I'll be ready in a minute."

"No, that's okay, take your time."

He pocketed both hands and curled the tired toes inside his shoes, looking down at them. Would "You were wonderful" have been a better thing to say, after all? Almost anything, it now seemed, would have been a better thing to say than what he'd said. But he would have to think of better thing to say later; right not it was all he could do to stand here and think about the double bourbon he would have when they stopped on the way home with the Campbells. He looked at himself in the mirror, tightening his jaw and turning his head a little to one side to give it a leaner, more commanding look, the face he had given himself in mirrors since boyhood and which no photograph had ever quite achieved, until with a start he found that she was watching him. Her own eyes were there in the mirror, trained on his for an uncomfortable moment before she lowered them to stare at the middle button of his coat.

Here's an exercise to try: write a scene where one character is trying to say the right thing to another character and failing miserably. Let the characters' gestures betray their true feelings.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Fill in the Blank

Day 1 of Character-Building Week:

Things characterize. Possessions, accessories, and burdens.

Try this: fill in the blanks below. The passage is from the beginning of a short story. (Bonus points to anyone who can identify the story and/or its writer.)

While the plane was pulling up to the gate on a summer evening in 1974, Karin reached down and got something out of her backpack. A --- which she ---, and a --- which she --- and a ---- which she ----. The ---- and ---- had been filched from ----, and the ---- was something she had bought for herself.

PS. I got this exercise from an Alan Michael Parker workshop I attended some years ago. Alan, btw, has a new novel, Whale Man.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Me, Graceful

Yesterday, I found myself running, in heels, from the Town of Drexel utility truck. It was a gravel driveway, my driveway. I had been taking out the trash and the guys in the truck surprised me, so I ran from them.

Not one of my proudest--or most graceful--moments. Sometimes I forget that I'm thirty-five, not nineteen, and that a pick-up truck with maybe three or four youngish, oldish guys with messy beards and ball-caps crawling up my driveway to check my power meter may not find the sight of me running away from them especially cute.

But, the entire situation seems emblematic of my life these last few weeks. Must get my life together. Get back into the writing seat, the blogging seat, the normal chaotic but managed life of my busy little family. Get out of the driveway before the utility truck is bearing down on my behind. I'm too old for this sort of disorganization.

Confession: I've already failed my new year's resolutions. Haven't worked on my new novel in a month or more.

Confession: I'm thirty-six. Almost thirty-seven.

But, I'm not dismayed. Guilt is useless; action is what counts.

Coming soon: Tuesday morning story-writing sessions, building fiction from the ground up. I'm back in task-master mode. Join me.