I know I have sworn off teaching, but...
Story exercise & story sketch
I know I have sworn off teaching, but addictive behaviors die hard. I was rearranging my Obsidian.md second brain (actually, it’s become my first brain), which has a lot of teaching material carefully categorized and linked (yes, these were the dark days when I guess I thought I would be teaching forever). I found this little story sketch I wrote for a student. It’s called “Leon & Perdita.”
I am only resurrecting it here because I remember how much fun I had stick-handling my way through it. Maybe twenty minutes. No revisions.
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In my book Attack of the Copula Spiders, there’s a short story exercise I often gave students to prime the pump. Not just to prime the pump but to model the essentials of what a story might be — a series of conflict scenes on a line, the same conflict over and over (that’s what a plot is), pauses for thematic material in the form of character reflection, some image and word repetition. My students often got stumped when it came to plot, that series of conflict scenes (all the same conflict, says he, repeating himself as teachers will). Intuitively, it just seems against nature (and the demands of realism) that characters would just have the same scene over and over; though, in fact, that’s the way most stories and novels work. So students would take evasive action.
One common tactic — the backfill trap — was to shift back in time and tell all the background that led up to the present conflict. This backfill might go on for 19 pages after which there was really no more room for the plot to develop.
Another — the broken backed story — was to have the character get in a fight with someone else instead of the main conflict companion. (I remember one student who could write the first five paragraphs of a New Yorker story about a husband and wife, then shift to a different story about the wife and her mother, and then ANOTHER story about the wife and her boss at work.)
I invented this little exercise to help students practice avoiding the common evasive manouevres. Sometimes it worked remarkably well. Here are three nice examples published on Numéro Cinq Magazine.
Shame by Benjamin Woodard
Gunslinger by Casper Martin
Angel of Death by Casper Martin
But sometimes the exercise wouldn’t work for a student. In this particular case, I wrote my own version just to show how it might be done. This is one of those demonstration pieces. I myself didn’t obey all the rules (about word repetition). But you can match the numbers up with the numbered items in the exercise, which I pasted in below.
This is not a story I would normally write, not my kind of thing. But it was fun to practice the chops as it were. What is similar in most of the stories I write is the idea of conflict pair meeting over and over, engaging with each other, reacting and developing. In this little sketch, Perdita is the one who does most of the developing. Leon is a foil. He doesn’t know what’s going on, doesn’t see himself. But the reader can see both of them clearly. That’s irony.
It also does illustrate how far you can go without sticking in any background material at all, without explaining.
Leon & Perdita
1) Against all expectation, Leon, an egomaniacal yet mediocre jazz player in his 30s suddenly decided he wanted a child. But when he told his wife Perdita, she demurred. She was only 24, she had time, and besides she wasn't so sure how long her passion for an egomaniacal yet mediocre jazz player would last. She was having doubts.
2) This is how it happened. One night, before leaving for work, Leon popped a bottle of champagne (which Perdita hated) and told her to go off the pill.
"I know how happy this'll make you," he said, beaming confidently.
Perdita was aghast, surprised, taken aback, pissed. She got paper towels and started wiping up the champagne. She pushed the glass he offered back across the table.
She said, "I think maybe not, not now."
"Why not? It's what you've always wanted."
"Are you mixing me up with some other wife?"
He didn't seem to hear. Maybe he had started with another bottle of champagne earlier when she was at work. Celebrating.
"Let's go to the club together. Let's celebrate."
"You hate me going to the club. Why now? What's changed? I have to work in the morning. I can't just drop everything..."
3) Later, at the club, Leon was his usual passionate self, manic and self-regarding. On stage, his patter always sounded as if he just knew the audience was hanging on his every word, got every nuance of a joke, applauded every phrase, crescendo, and awkward honk of his horn. In fact, there were only five people drinking that night, besides Perdita.
"It's a big night tonight, folks," he said, beaming at the audience, beaming as if the 80 empty chairs were thronged with admirers. "Over here is Perdita, the love of my life, the mother of my children, in fact, when we go home tonight we're going to seal the deal. Nine months and Junior Leon will be on the scene. Give Perdita a big round of applause."
At this, Perdita threw her purse over her shoulder, swept up her cell phone, on which she had been reading Instagram posts while Leon played, and left.
4) That night Leon was flummoxed. He didn't play well because his mind was elsewhere (not that he played that well when his mind was there). He really wanted Perdita to attend, to watch him. This was a big night, as he kept saying to himself. He missed her suddenly, but he knew he didn't usually miss her. So what was different? Why had he suddenly decided to have a kid? He had never wanted a kid before. He felt her absence tonight like a blow. But then he realized she had seemed absent these last few weeks. Somehow not there. The idea flitted through his mind that perhaps wanting a baby was his way of cementing their relationship, keeping her by him. But he quickly suppressed the thought. He never thought about love; he thought applause and an audience were love. Love enough anyway. He only felt absence, that was love lacking. These insights made him uneasy, that and the fact that most of the bar patrons left during his third set.
5) The next day, he woke early and had a shower and was waiting for her at the kitchen table when she got home from work. She had been crying. She looked like she had been crying all day. It made him think she might be dehydrated. She sat down without taking her coat off.
"We have to talk," she said. "You humiliated me last night."
"I just surprised you," he said, approximating kindliness and encouragement.
"No, you humiliated me. You act like I am a prop. I am a prop in your fantasy world, Leon."
"I wanted to talk, too," he said. "See, we're on the same wave length. I was waiting here when you walked in. We're on the same wave length. We both wanted to talk. I wanted to say I was sorry for yesterday. The baby thing and all."
"Wave length!" Perdita wailed. "Wave length. You never mentioned a baby before. Ever. You never ask me what I think. What did you think? I wasn't enough anymore? You need another prop? A baby prop?"
"Perdy, will you stop saying 'prop.'"
"I am thinking maybe I have to leave, Leon. I've been lonely. You don't see me. You see the prop next to you on the bed or across the table and you do your little performances around it and then you bow for applause. I didn't realize it till last night when you humiliated me. Suddenly I was there but different from what you were seeing, different from what you said I was, different from what those jerks in the audience saw. And I hated what they saw."
6) Leon drank the leftover champagne from the night before alone, listening to Perdita's sobs from the bedroom. He played better that night than he had in years. Someone left him a $50 tip and a note that said, "You haven't played this well in years." When he got home, she was gone. He fell asleep and dreamed psychedelic dreams of babies, naked mothers, and a trampoline, everything hidden away in a prop room at the back of a theatre he had once played in. At the end of the dream a naked mother and a naked baby were bouncing together on the trampoline and he was lying underneath, dead.
7) A week later, so much had happened. Leon got fired from his gig because he forgot to show up. He was short of cash (as usual) and so he started busking for tips, just to get by till he got another gig. Two of Perdita's young male colleagues from work came by for her things, furniture and such. They were athletic and cheerful and made him feel old. He tried to make conversation. but they had earbuds in listening to music, not the kind of music he played. He felt suddenly so 90s. He felt ignored. Not ignored exactly. He felt not there. Like a ghost. A ghost in an apartment with no furniture. He texted Perdita 89 times but she didn't respond. He looked at her Instagram feed. She posted pictures of outings with friends, including the two young male colleagues. She had 900 likes. Why didn't he know any of these people? His tips from busking weren't enough to get by on. None of his old gigs would bring him back. He started to go hungry. But oddly it felt good. There was no performing now. No audience to mirror his fantasies. Sadly, there was no Perdita. But he did not blame her. He didn't think badly of her. He realized she had never really been there, only his image of her. He wished her well, now, whoever she was. He thought, now, he should practice more.
AN EXERCISE, OR HOW TO WRITE A MODERN SHORT STORY IN ONE EASY LESSON
This is meant to be a rough template of a minimal story trajectory. It is meant to simplify and incorporate many of the devices and structures discussed in the preceding notes. If you follow the template correctly, keeping in mind the formal lessons above, you will end up with a narrative that looks something like a contemporary short story. (Note that the line breaks function as rough globbing lines, separating the text into time units and emphasizing the modular nature of narrative structure.) On the other hand, rather than simply trying out the exercise, a better idea would be to use the formal lessons and the exercise template as reading tools, that is, as a way of identifying formal structures in successful short stories and their variations. But if you prefer the lazy approach, start this way:
1) Write a 2-3 sentence opening in which two characters in some relationship with each other are caught in some odd present on-going situation. This can be comic or violent or tragic. Use a but-construction to make the set-up grammatically dramatic. Keep the point of view structures simple: pick one character to be the protagonist and point of view and stick to it. Use the word “worry” somewhere.
(In a short story, you might not use line breaks to differentiate between various plot steps and/or thematic material, but it’s useful to see how easily one can move forward in a narrative with a little skip and a time switch word.)
2) Write a small scene with these two characters (don’t add extra characters, do not go back in time). The scene begins with the time switch phrase “One day...” Use some narration but rely mainly on dialogue to carry the scene. Use the not-answering strategies to make the dialogue dramatic. Include the words “laughter” and “tears.” Keep it short.
3) Write another small scene with the same two characters (don’t add extra characters, do not go back in time). The scene begins with the time switch phrase “The next morning...” (so it clearly follows the previous scene). Use some narration but rely again mostly on dialogue. Don’t drift into backfill (at all--if I seem to repeat myself on this point, well...). Use the word “passion” somewhere.
4) Write a thematic passage (3-5 sentences) in which your main character, the character whose head you are in, speculates on what is happening in the story, the nature of the conflict between the two, the nature of the situation, etc. Try using the device of the rhetorical question to get this revery going. Literally, you can ask the question “What is this story about?” Include the words “love” and “blood.”
5) Write another scene with the same two characters. The scene begins with the time switch phrase “That night...” Again, rely mostly on dialogue. Begin to repeat some words or ideas from previous sections. Think about Alice Munro’s black room.
6) Write a second thematic passage inquiring into the nature of what’s now happened. In this use rhetorical questions again, but you can also (since it follows directly on a scene that takes place at night) use dreams or imagery to reflect what’s going on. You can have the character inquire into either or both the dream and the real life events. Try an aphorism.
7) Write a final section that begins with the time switch phrases “A week later, so much had happened....” In this section, you’ll have to give a brief summary of the week’s activities, the intervening action. Then bring the same two characters back together for one more brief dialogue scene. Then end it in a sentence or two. Repeat the words you have begun to repeat elsewhere in the exercise.
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