Come again?

I have fallen head over heels in love Steering the Craft, and I've only worked my way up to chapter four. Ursula K. Le Guin is my new hero. We've gone miles beyond the mere consideration of a text from which to teach, here: she's rescued me. She's tricked me into writing. I sit down to an exercise and suddenly there are these ideas; I don't even know where they've come from. I didn't know they were in there. Who's that kid poking a dead frog with a stick? Where did the guy with the white patent leather boots come from? What hat did I pull the name Hetty from? Heck if I know. I never met a Hetty in my life.

Sometimes the right manual comes along at the right time, one that fits the writer's needs precisely. I feel a little cautious about Le Guin's book in that respect; I think it'll work as a teaching tool, but-- then again-- I've some lingering doubts as to whether the book will fit my workshop students' needs as well as they fit my own. I like the idea of finding one's way into a story through a line, but that's not going to work for everyone-- as I realised when I found myself, in reply to a comment somewhere below, saying something along these lines: Oh, try it, it's easy; I just started with a rhythmic line and freewrote for ten minutes! I've had mixed results using that sort of approach to writing in other workshops. Some people dig it, and feel it opens up a lot of possibilities; others really struggle. I'm not sure how I'll deal with that issue in the workshop. I suppose it will depend on the participants themselves, and a certain amount of skillful pantseat-flying on my part.

It's true that I seem to write much better when I begin with and follow a line, or an image, as opposed to coming up with a concept, or hammering out a plot.* There's something Le Guin says in a later chapter which startled me: that "plot" is a device, just one method it's possible to use to tell a story. Just think about that: plot is a device. That's a pretty bold statement to make-- and, at least to my mind, it blows all sorts of doors open. Of course something has to happen in a story, of course there has to be some significant change-- but you don't necessarily need a chain of action to do it. Your focus as you write can be something other than events in a timeline; there's not really a need for flow charts or note cards, if you're willing to follow a scene, a character, even a line, where it leads you.

Chapter four of Le Guin, in its tricky fashion, deals with repetition-- of words, of lines, of rhythms, of images. I love that this next exercise packs so many different elements of fiction writing into three deceptively simple stages: it gets you thinking about language rhythms, about narrative voice, even about how to use significant images to create a theme. And by the end, if you've diligently done all three, and written enough, you've got yourself a nice little short story to show for your efforts. Result!

My efforts at the first two parts of the exercise are below. The third is a story I wrote a little while ago**.

Part One: Verbal Repetition

Write a paragraph of narrative (150 words) that includes at least three repetitions of a noun, verb, or adjective (a noticeable word, not an invisible one like "was," said," "did").

This exercise can easily be done in a group as in-class writing. (If you read it aloud, don't tell people what the repeated word is; do they hear it?) (Le Guin, 56)

When Beryl's Daughter Began to Think

"I think," Ally said, and she rounded on her mother as she did, "I think you've been waiting for a moment like this. You've been waiting to teach me a lesson, haven't you? You've been waiting." Ally spoke quietly, but so much so, and with such a set to her jaw, that for the first time Beryl actually felt a little afraid. Beryl opened and closed her hands; she turned her palms up and outward to plead, she even opened her mouth, but Ally did not allow her to begin. "Don't make excuses," Ally said. "Don't lie. Don't try to tell me it's because you love me, or that it's for my own good. I think we both know what it is." Ally sank into one of the chairs at the kitchen table and dropped her head into her hands. "I'm thirty-four, Mom," she moaned. "Thirty-four. Jesus." And to Beryl it felt-- how it had happened, she couldn't even begin to figure, but she felt it all the same-- that she'd somehow won the argument. She lowered her hands and went to her daughter, to comfort her. She hoped Ally couldn't sense the wild feeling of triumph that gripped her then-- just for that one, unbidden fraction of a second-- and made her hand tremble as she stroked her hair.


Part Two: Syntactic Repetition

Write a paragraph to a page of narrative (200-400 words) in which you deliberately repeat the syntactical construction, or the exact rhythm, of a phrase or sentence (or more than one) several times... † (56)

The Skipper's Boots

When the men returned to the boat, Ruth went quiet as a cat; she crouched and froze in the shadows at the stern. For a long time she sat and listened to the men going about their business-- hauling ropes, dragging crates, lashing the crates down tight beneath thick canvas sheets. She'd nearly decided to make her move, when a hand clamped her shoulder hard from behind; the force of it drove her to the deck where she lay flat and still. The hand seized her by her jacket collar and hauled her, gasping, to her feet.

"What's this, now?"

The voice was rough, and deep, like a smoker's. "Here, Skipper! We've got gerbils!"

Someone barked a laugh and the hand propelled Ruth forward, her collar fast in its grip, not quite lifting her off her toes. It thrust her toward a man in a long, ragged mac and a cloth hat, pulled low over his eyes; she couldn't see much more of the rest of his face. She stumbled and fell at his feet, hard, on her knees.

"Hello, gerbil," he said.

The Skipper's boots were a bright white patent leather, Ruth remembered afterward. It's not the sort of thing a body forgets-- especially not once it's been kicked a few times. Ruth heard, or imagined she heard, someone running toward them, as she sank into the blackness, someone shouting: What are you doing? It's just a kid. Jesus Christ, man, she's only a kid.


Part Three: Structural Repetition

Write a short narrative (350-1000 words) in which something is said or done, and then something is said or done that echoes or repeats it, perhaps in a different context, or by different people, or on a different scale.

This can be a complete story, if you like, or a fragment of narrative.

Any two parts of this exercise, or all three, may be combined into one. (57)

Is it You

Sunday night, my granddad calls for the fourth time. He's been dead for nine years, but he's still my granddad; I could get used to this, I suppose. I pick up the phone on the first ring.

"Is it you?" I say, and of course it is.

"Who else would it be? Lon Chaney?"

God knows why he thinks it's funny. I don't think it's funny. "You sound terrible," I tell him.

When he laughs, it's that same sticky, papery wheeze I remember from before, just before he died. He always did smoke too much; I guess sooner or later you're going to do damage you can't undo, smoking like that. I wait for him to stop coughing.

"You would, too," he says. "Stuff gets in your pipes, after a while. Bugs and dirt. It's not so easy."

"So how is heaven, granddad?"

Granddad laughs, and he coughs, and he laughs. "Heaven," he chuckles. "You always were the funny one. I loved that about you." There's an uncomfortable pause, where he rattles and wheezes, and I just wait. "I never said so, but I did. Still do."

"Yeah, I know. Thanks, granddad."

"You're a good kid."


"Listen," he says. "I know I shouldn't keep calling you like this. I don't mean to impose."

"I know."

"Who else can I call? There is no one else." This isn't strictly true-- there's my Aunt Margie in Beach Haven, for example-- but I don't say anything. How can I say anything?

"Someone's got to come and change the flowers, at least," he says.

"I already told you I can't."

"Please, honey."

"I'm sorry, granddad. No." I say goodbye and hang up before he can ask again.

This goes on for a couple of weeks, and then a couple of months, every other night or so. Granddad wheedles, telling stories about me as a kid, until we're both laughing. "Say, you remember that time you buried all your Nana's silver spoons under the rose bush? I don't think we ever found them all, and I dug for weeks. How about when that banana boat spider crawled up the bathtub drain? Boy, did you holler." I try to remind him about going for ice cream at Murphy's, and the little clams on the shore that time we went to Boston, but he doesn't recall so well. I guess you don't always remember everything.

One night in November, I finally pluck up the nerve to ask him what it's like, being dead.

Granddad chuckles. "What's it like being alive?" he says. He doesn't say so, but I think he's getting impatient with me. I tell him he ought to remember.

He sighs. "What's to remember? It is what it is. You'd have to come and see for yourself."

"I can't. I said I can't."

"You mean you won't," Granddad rasps. He pauses to clear his throat. "Sooner or later, you'll come," he says. "Someone's got to."

I hang up on him. Granddad doesn't call again.

A few weeks, and then a month, go by; the phone never rings. I suppose I can get used to it, but it's hard to let go. One day I break down, buy some carnations, and drive down to the cemetery. Granddad was right. Someone's got to.

The wind picks up as I step out of the car and climb up the hill to Granddad's plot. I take my time cleaning up all the leaves and weeds on his grave with the hand rake I brought along, and then I arrange the flowers in the planter beside his headstone. It's a relief to hear footsteps, at last, shuffling through the leaves behind me, but I don't turn around right away.

"Is that you?" I say.

"It's just that--" he says, and his voice sounds dry in his throat, he coughs a little-- "it's just that I can't quite seem to let go."

I get to my feet and put on a smile before I turn. He's got on the same worn tweed suit I remember, the jacket frayed at the hem and cuffs, now, a mouldy patch here and there. He isn't wearing any shoes.

"Is it really you?" I say, reaching for his hand. He doesn't seem to feel it and stares cloudy-eyed at my fingers clasped about his palm, like he can't understand what it's for.


He looks up and smiles, or he tries to smile-- I guess it's not that easy, after nine years. It hurts to see him try. "Oh, I'm so glad you came." He gives my fingers a cold, cold squeeze; it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.

"Thank God you're here," he says. He squeezes my hand. "Thank God you're here."


I actually had the most difficulty with the second part of the exercise-- I may have an ear for rhythm, but it all falls apart when I start trying to force a rhythm on a narrative. I think I rather gave up toward the end. Once it was finished, though, it led very naturally to the piece I'm still working on for the third part. (Oh, those marvellous patent leather boots, they've got the whole world in them!) I may or may not post the results of that at some other time. I'll see how it goes. For now I want to take my time with it.

Your results in the usual places, if you like! Someone out there must surely be tempted to try their hand at some of these exercises...††


Excercises from Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 56-7.

*I always think of that little triangle diagram my college screenwriting profs used to draw up on the board whenever they began a lecture about plot; whenever I saw that thing, I'd die a little inside. I'd actually feel my veins shrivelling up. No kidding.

**Blogger Jack P. was collecting scary stories for Halloween, and several of us obliged; the blog on which I originally posted it has gone the way of the dodo, so I figure I may as well throw it up here.

†Le Guin offers the following examples of repeating syntactical constructions:
With her hands in her pockets, she walked to the door and faced the stranger. His eyes on her face, he stood there a moment and said nothing...

...We always went to the mountain in summer. But I never knew what had happened to Bonny.
†† It's not hard. Ten minutes, tops. You know you want to.


spacedlaw said...

Alessandro Baricco's stories have great examples of repetitions, be it words or syntax - it can lend a rather dream like quality to a story if used well. Of course a lot of editors might just stick their hands in the hair and shriek about the abomination of it all, the book saying that you are not supposed to repeat words. But what if we like being naughty and say "screw the rules"?

Jess said...

I'm not familiar with Baricco's work-- I may have to check him out. His listings on Amazon look really interesting.

The way I figure it is the way my teachers (the good ones) figured it: there are rules, and you should know them, but there's also knowing that you know what you're doing. The point is to first get comfortable with how the rules are supposed to work, and then begin to play with them and see what else you can make the language do.

That's sort of what Le Guin gets at in the chapter on repetition-- and she makes the point that we've come by a lot of the "rules" to which we're told we ought to adhere (using only short, uncomplicated constructions, avoiding repetition, and so forth) from magazine publishing, from journalists and editors who have a limited amount of space to fill and need things like punchy headers, different-sized fonts, pictures to fill the white space, and whatnot. Journalism writing is a very different thing from fiction writing, though-- you can certainly make use of its rules, but that doesn't mean they must apply to both types of writing.

That said, my motto isn't really just "screw the rules." You don't screw the rules simply to be contrary, and flip all the editors and Grammar Nazis the bird. You screw the rules, rather, because you know what you're doing with them.

I have to be careful, myself, as I like long, complex sentences and I tend to get carried away with them; my writing gets sloppy, and very difficult to read, when that happens. I especially get lazy in comment threads. I'm trying to be careful about that here-- this is supposed to be a working blog, heh-- but, well, you know, like, whatever. It's just freakin' internets. Look! There's a kitten! Let's 'shop a hat on it! Roffle! :D

Jennifer said...

"You don't screw the rules simply to be contrary, and flip all the editors and Grammar Nazis the bird. You screw the rules, rather, because you know what you're doing with them."

I agree with this. Know the rules, and you know their strengths and weaknesses. I tend to think that there are rules that can be bent, rules that should be bent, and rules that should be snapped like dead twigs. :) The latter are those rules that trap you and keep you silent. I recently posted a playful example of how to break out of those kinds of prisons.

"She's tricked me into writing. I sit down to an exercise and suddenly there are these ideas; I don't even know where they've come from. I didn't know they were in there."

That's really exciting!

I can understand your concern about whether or not the Le Guin text will be helpful for every workshop participant. As someone who is more visual, I start from images and tend to conceive of sentences, paragraphs, and stories as multicolored pipe cleaners to be bent and twisted into different "shapes." Sometimes a story's shape ends up being triangle-like, but it can just as well end up being a spiral or a parallelogram.

Rhythm and language are secondary--and more difficult--for me. These exercises will prove to be somewhat of a challenge to me because they ask me to start from a place which isn't my natural starting place. Not that that's a bad thing, or an impossible thing. Just that I probably won't find them to be easy as you have done. Helpful, I'm sure, but probably frustrating. LOL

Dragonsally said...

I've just ordered the book Jess, and I can't wait to get it and try the exercises, I've so enjoyed reading your efforts.
I hope it doesn't take too long to arrive, I'm all enthused.