Friday, February 03, 2006
TELL ME WHAT Y0U CANNOT TELL ME
What are you thinking?
Come on. We've been married ten years now and I know when something is on your mind.
You always seem to know when something is on my mind, don't you?
Well, you don't have to snap at me! What did I do wrong?
Nothing. Not a thing!
Did something happen at work today? You know you can talk to me about it.
No, nothing happened at work. Nothing ever happens at work.
Well, something must be bothering you.
I'm just tired is all.
Him: (voice coming from offstage)
Yeah, something is bothering me, all right. I can't stand you. Always trying to manage my life but never contributing anything to it.
Her: (voice from offstage)
What is the matter with him? I've always done what was best for him. I make him a nice home and do all the damn work around here. What does he want?
Well, I had a difficult day today. I had trouble with my boss and I'm really upset. I wish you would have a little more consideration.
What's this got to do with consideration? What do you want from me? You know I have it tough too. You aren't the only one with a tough job.
Yeah, I never said that you didn't have it difficult. What does that have to do with anything?
Why do you always have to get so angry at everything I say? I never did anything to deserve that.
Please. Just leave me alone! I don't need another one of these go nowhere conversations.
Where is it supposed to go?
I don't care anymore where it goes. Just let me sleep.
Him: (voice only)
It's like talking to a wall. There really isn't anyone home there. How do you tell someone who isn't home that there is company?
Her: (voice only)
What does he want from me? God knows, I try to please him every way I can.
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
BEFORE YOU BEGIN TO WRITE
Writing begins with an idea. The idea comes to you without bidding. Before turning the idea into the great American Novel of the Twenty-First Century, there are many steps you might choose to take before you begin formal writing. Here is a listing of some of them:
The beginning of story writing doesn't appear on page one. As a matter-of-fact, it doesn't appear in the manuscript at all. The beginning of a story takes place in the mind of the writer, or perhaps in a notebook if you are very organized (which I admit I am not).
Much writing by new writers appears to skip the critical steps I just mentioned and will describe at greater length below. The list below is not in a particular order. To discuss each issue would take an entire book, and we will come back to most of these issues in depth later. For now, it is important to become familiar with the fact that there are many issues we must deal with before a word is committed to paper. We need to make, amongst others, the following decisions:
* The nature of the protagonist. We needs to create a three-dimensional character and sets her loose in a plot. Our character must have many facets that, in combination, can make her unpredictable -- even to the writer.
* The basic storyline. What is the story about? Here is an example of a storyline that gets the action going but has no input into how it will get to its destination. It differs from a plot outline in that a plot outline is a detailed account of what is going to happen and who is going to make it happen. Here is a storyline sample:
A storyline for a bank caper might look like this: Three men who met in reform school and the former girlfriend of one of them meet again twenty years later. Each has a reason for needing a large amount of money quickly or a reason for turning to an illegal activity to get it. Two meet by co-incidence and involve the other two as they develop a plan to rob the former employer of one of the four.
The storyline brings us to the next set of important decisions in the beginning process:
* The individual major characters. What is the back story (history of the character that you may or may not share with the reader) about each one that you need in order to develop the story? What are their strengths and flaws? What in their background makes them susceptible to becoming a believable part of the scheme? What in their lives creates the potential for conflict and chaos when they join with the other protagonists?
* The narrator. Now that you have a story and the primary characters, you need to
pick a narrator that fits best with the style and substance of the story. Will you use a First-Person POV (Point-of-View) and choose one of the characters? Would this story be written best from a Third-Person limited POV, a Third-Person omnicient POV? Perhaps you are overlooking a minor character who hasn't been introduced yet who would make the best POV. What kind of voice do you want to give the narrator? Does the narrator have to have the same kind of background as the characters? Decisions, decisions.
* Plot outlining. Each decision you make creates a need to make further decisions. Do you make a plot outline with a conclusion now, or do you allow the characters to develop the story so that the conclusion will become a natural outcome of their interactions with each other, with others who are introduced as the story develops, their strengths and weaknesses and outside elements they can't control?
* Back story. How much of the information about the characters do you need to share with the reader? How do you share it in a manner that doesn't impede the forward motion of the story?
* The major problem. How do you introduce the protagonist's major problem without being too obvious about it? How do you pull the reader into the conflict without appearing to force the issue?
* The hook. How do you get the reader to want to read on to the end? The first hook is a key that you want to develop that represents your style, the nature of the manuscript and will help the reader suspend disbelief.
* The introduction of the characters. How do you plan to bring your cast on to the stage? You want to be realistic, yet not waste too much time with introductions? How do you plan to build the characters so that they change as events and other characters impact upon them and they impact upon events and other characters?
* Dialogue by each character (the character's voice) as well as between characters. Does your dialogue immediately distinguish your characters? Does their dialogue contribute mightily to the progress of the storyline? Is there tension and conflict in the dialogue to move the story forward from page 1?
* Description. Does your description of the characters list all their attributes and characteristics like the slats of a picket fence or do you allow your character to grow in the mind of the reader? Does your description of events and locale overwhelm the reader with adjectives and minutia? Do you show your story rather than tell it?
* Setting. Where have you placed the action? Does your story need a particular locale? If it does, do you know enough about the locale to describe it and use it accurately? The example I always recall about the description of locale bears repeating. It killed the veracity of a mystery I once read. The scene was placed on Fourteenth Street in Philadelphia. There is no Fourteenth Street in Philadelphia. Between Thirteenth Street and Fifteenth Street is Broad Street. It is the core N - S street in that city and was designed by the city's founder, William Penn in the seventeenth century. It was and still is the focal point on the N - S axis of that city all these years after he drew the first Platt maps. Without that knowledge, a careless writer and and editor allowed that faux pas to pass muster and be printed.
* The time frame and date. Another task is to set the amount of time you will use to conduct the business of the story: Hours? Days? Years? Also, you need to set the era in which it takes place: Now? Some identifiable time in the past? Some identifiable time in the future?
* The format. Are you writing a book-length project, a short story, a short-short, a novelette? How you approach the material will vary according to what format you are writing. How many characters, who will narrate, the time span, the focus will depend on what kind of writing you are doing.
* A working title. Sometimes a title can serve as the parameters around which you will build the story. It may not be the one the marketing department of a publisher will use, but it allows you to get the story in focus and to the editor.
* The opening line. If it is: "It was a dark and stormy night," your name better be Snoopy or you can forget it. It may be raining, cold and windy, but you better find a unique way fo bringing it into your story. You can bring the same concept in from a personalized place.
I was wet, cold and angry. My first thought was to throw in the towel, but not until I used it to dry myself off.
Ok, that was pretty loose, but you get the idea. Be original, no cliches -- not even in your outline. Even in an outline, write your best, so you won't use an opening that was ineffective a hundred years ago.
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
FINDING THE BEST WORDS FOR YOUR STORIES
The Best Word is the Correct word
I find writing difficult, but not necessarily hard. The previous sentence is a takeoff of a posting in which the writer, referring to an exercise she was asked to perform, said, "I find the exercise hard." I replied, "I don't find it hard, but I do find it difficult." I find that cooking eggs for ten minutes makes them hard, while picking up mercury with your fingers is difficult.
Words: Although there are over two hundred and fifty thousand of them in the English language, we find it difficult to get a story right (rather than left?) -- no, what we find difficult is: To construct our story in such a manner that it gives to give reader an accurate portrayal of our thoughts and ideas. In order to accomplish the goal of “getting it right,’ we must select the best word, not some of the time, but, every time.
Contemplate the task of the writer seeking the best words to describe her ideas with that of a physician performing major surgery. Can you picture the surgeon saying, "Oops, well, it was close. The patient will probably survive." The patient may, but the doctor won't. To become a professional writer, we are held to the same exacting standards as the surgeon; we must say exactly what we mean to create the elements of a powerful story or we will not find a receptive marketplace.
When I advise a new writer how to find the best word, I tell her, "Don't use your head to find your best word; use your dictionary, thesaurus and every other tool of writing you can get your hands on. Without the correct and best words, there will be a flat plot, dead dialogue and worst of all. An uninteresting story. Words do not make a story. The correct and best words perform that function.
As a carpenter wouldn't try to drive a nail with a sledgehammer, nor a logger try to cut down a gnarled oak with a paring knife, why would a writer use non-descriptive words that lay flat, give flawed impressions and otherwise leave the story stranded? Starting a paragraph with a word such as "this" may be easy for the writer, but the reader will have to hunt her memory for the reference. The same rule applies when beginning a paragraph with the pronouns “he” or “she.” "Who is “he?" mutters the reader, pausing to remember . . . and perhaps remembering instead that she promised to call a friend and then makes the call, forgetting the book. If William Tell had settled for the same degree of accuracy the stories in this examples did, he would have been serving shish-ka-bobbed son for dinner -- with a pristine apple for dessert.
In an e-mail this morning, I received a newsletter from a writer who I had met on line. He sent a story to me that began: "It . . ." I didn't read past the first word. If the writer was so confident that the world would read anything he wrote that he didn't care enough about his readers to polish his first sentence, then I didn’t have enough interest to waste my time reading his work.
Careless writing is different from unskilled writing. New writers can be taught skills. Careless writing takes place when the writer either avoids attaining skills or is too lazy to edit his work, except, perhaps, to run the piece through a spell checker.
A developing writer needs to accept that the words they first commit to paper in a rough draft are nothing but the first words that came to mind, and rather than stop what she is doing to seek a better word, she typed or wrote the word that came to mind. A lazy writer will stop seeking a word at that juncture, hoping the reader, who herself may be a developing writer, will overlook it. Or worse yet, believe that she has a “right” to use any word she pleases to describe the story.
I agree with the writers who scream about their rights to say what they please. As a writer, we have the right to say anything that pleases us. However, as readers, we have a reciprocal right to stop reading anything that displeases us. When a novice writing group encourages this same writer by posting the following, "You've written a great story. I wouldn't change a word," her opinion that there is no need for greater accuracy is reinforced and she will take a pleasant opinion over one that offers structural or procedural advice.
Writing exciting poetry or prose requires us to convey images as well as ideas to the reader. When we choose less than the best words, we convey less than the complete image or idea. Metaphors, similes and paradoxes allow the reader to visualize our words. However, when we use one of these tools in an inappropriate or less than accurate manner, we leave our story flat, uninteresting or disharmonious. For instance, if I say, "It was colder than a log cabin in December," what have I said? The answer is: Nothing. Where is the log cabin? Wasn't it heated? The reader is now off on a side trip thinking about the nature of log cabins instead of the fact that the character is trapped in a cold place and may forget about our story altogether. Yet, many writers will leave careless mistakes such as the one I demonstrated. Since she knows what she meant, she assumes that the reader will also. The reader may deduce the meaning in a second, but in that second, the reader is out of the story, not immersed within its invisible boundaries. One element that makes a play believable is that the actors treat the props as if they were real. Writers need to show the same care with their words. Stories exist in the moinds of the reader only if we use the proper tools and the proper seeds to plant them there.
Words often have meaning far beyond their dictionary definition. The sounds of words, the rhythm of putting them in certain contexts to creating sentences and paragraphs that fit our story is as important as the words themselves. Editing and rewriting require more than a dictionary and thesaurus. The task of editing also require a “reader's ear.” If the words seem to have proper meaning, but a trained editor takes them apart, her actions should help you understand that you are reading with a preconceived notion that what you said means what you intended. If you hear the words rather than see them, the inconsistencies will appear. We need to weigh each word that we send out. Ask yourself, What is the exact meaning of this word?" and, "Is the word I chose the best word to describe the setting, action, thought, expression or feeling I'm trying to convey to my readers?" Treat each word you use as if you had to pay a dollar for it and you will begin to choose stronger words to represent your ideas.
I believe that anyone can learn to recognize the best words. The difficulty we encounter is that reading word by word takes time and energy. For a novice writer to achieve a tight story, she must care about results and have the discipline necessary to pursue the effects she desires . To get from here (your present level of writing) to there (developing the skill to tell a story that will delight a discriminating audience) requires you to perform the following tasks: First, you must forget every cliche you ever heard. Second, you need to learn new ways to describe action, appearance and intent without overusing adjectives.. Third, you need to eliminate most of the adverbs and replace them with action verbs. Fourth and most important, don't imitate other writers. Those that have great talent are unique and can't be imitated, and those that don't, have nothing you can use.
Write with care and diligence. Be open to opinions that differ from yours. Accept that writing to a level that will be marketable takes much time and even more effort. The writer who attains instant success probably took twenty years to achieve it.
To end where I began, remember, the right word is the last word on the last line only in countries where language is written left-to-right. The correct word is the best word no matter in which language you write.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
INTERVIEWING YOUR CHARACTERS
You've written a story about a bank heist; the plot has more convolutions than a licorice twist. The story is exciting from the opening hook to the denouement and you've developed an unexpected ending that will blow away even the most jaded reader. With eager anticipation, you submit the manuscript to editors you discovered by researching the marketplace. You believe that what you wrote is exactly what publishers are seeking. You query editors with a brief plot outline, and to your great pleasure, you get a response from one of them requesting a significant portion of the manuscript. Dreams of sugarplum limousines and ego-inflating book signings dance in your head.
A month goes by . . . The long-awaited letter arrives. The tension mounts as your shaking hands fumble to open the envelope, almost turning your ticket to fame and fortune into confetti. You read the letter:
Though you have an interesting plot, the characters don't do much for me. Try rewriting it. It has potential.
John Smith, editor
Your stomach sinks faster than a 747 crash landing in a cornfield. You are too hurt to recognize the free and supportive knowledge he is giving you. This letter isn't a rejection. It is a clarion call to tell you that you have potential as a writer, but that you need to further study your craft to give your manuscript the power it needs to attain publication. The editor is telling you two things in this brief letter: First, he believes you possess the skill required to rewrite your manuscript, and that the manuscript is worthy of a fresh treatment. More important, he is telling you that he is willing to read the rewrite, if you remedy the issue he presented: The issue he presented is: your characters are flat, uninteresting and have nothing to distinguish them from each other; they contribute little to a plot-drawn vehicle.
There are two rules of great writing. The first rule is: Characters must carry the story. The plot is only a malleable wrapping within which the characters act and are acted upon by natural elements, their own shortcomings and other characters. The second rule of great writing is: What you write about a character is guided by your knowledge of his or her life. You know far more about your character than you realize. Later in this article, you will find a list of questions that may help you access your knowledge so that you may power-up your characters to new heights.
Rather than learning only surface qualities, or developing a specific characteristic, I yearn to get inside each character to understand all of his or her nuances. Think of memorable books and movies. Those that are memorable featured a multi-dimensional protagonist who grabbed you and held on to the end. When you reached the conclusion of the story, you wanted more. There is no doubt that creating dynamic, exciting, conflicted characters is a key to getting your story published.
Now we come to the hard part. You ask, "What do I need to do differently to create memorable characters?" Get to know the character before you write about her. The best way to get to know a character is to have her to talk to you before you begin writing the story. Much of what you'll learn from her may not appear in the story at all, but once she’s turned loose on the pages, the information will have a dramatic impact on the story. You will share only snippets of your knowledge with the reader, on a need-to-know basis. The first efforts of new writers are often based on their own experiences in which all the characters are thinly disguised versions of real people. As we grow as writers, we write about characters and situations that have nothing in common with our own lives. Your imagination contains the seeds that will allow you to develop thousands of characters.
Next, you might ask, "How do I get my character to talk to me off the record? Do I dream about her? Do I walk down the street mumbling to myself?" No, you set up an interview at your mutual convenience. Prepare your questions in advance, as a reporter would. Treat your character as a stranger whom you would like to know better. Make her comfortable and ask only questions that will broaden your knowledge of her. Gently and politely, ask her if she would be willing to tell you about her life. If she agrees, give her free reign to talk all day about an issue. Ask her the questions listed below, as well as any others that come to mind in the process. Even background information, which may not appear in the final draft, will help you to write the story.
The questions below represent a prospective outline of some of the information that may help you to get to know your character. When you know her well, you will be able to use her more effectively in your story. The better you know her, the better the opportunity for the reader to get inside her, too. If the reader understands who the character is and what makes her act and react, she will have the answer the question: "Why should I bother reading about her? I've read lots of stories like this one."
You can ask some specific questions to make your interview more productive. Ask open-ended questions. An open-ended question can't be answered "yes" or "no." Each answer you receive will lead you to another question. Continue the interview until you know all the information and character traits you need. What you learn will affect the way she will react to her circumstances and how she will interact with other characters. This complex task needs only to be used in interviewing major characters. With minor characters, you may want to do a partial interview according to their function in the story; remember that it is often a minor character who takes center stage for a few moments and gives your reader an added treat.
When you and your major are comfortable, ask her important questions such as the following:
* What was it like living in your home when you were growing up?
* What was the worst experience you had as a child?
* What is your best memory from childhood?
* Who were the people who raised you and what were their most memorable qualities?
* Who are you today?
* What makes you angry?
* What are you afraid of?
* What is missing from your life?
* What is work for you and what is play?
* What do you have that you would fight for?
* What do you want that you might kill for?
* What do you most like about yourself?
* Where are your friends when you need them?
* What makes you sad?
* What is the funniest thing you remember?
* How do you feel about yourself as a person?
* What experiences have you had with love in your life?
* If you had a free wish, what would you wish for and why?
* What would people not like about you if they really knew you?
* Of all the people in your life who are not here any longer, whom do you miss the most and why?
* Whom do you miss the least?
* If you were celebrating, what would you choose to do?
* If you could be an animal, what kind would you be?
* Do you have a best friend? How does it make you feel?
* What is your secret fantasy?
* Are you happy where you live?
* Describe your family.
* What are your most important traits?
* What would you change about yourself?
* What bad habits do you have?
* Are you religious?
* What have you done that makes you most proud?
* What have you done that makes you feel most ashamed?
The above list is but a sample of the kinds of questions that can help you to create a multi-dimensional character. You do not have to have the character answer all of the questions, but use as many of them as you need to create a character that is whole. When she tells her story, allow her to tell the gritty as well as the pretty. Make her the sum total of her experiences, hopes, dreams, desires, faults and virtues. Allow her to make excuses, lie, or try to deceive you and the readers. The more complex the character, the more exciting the story.
To write a great story, you need to advertise for great characters. No cardboard characters need apply. Characters can have at least as many characteristics and significant events as you would have if you were writing your autobiography.
Now for some additional instructions that will enable your character to grow after you start using her in a story:
* Give the character a voice that is her own, not yours.
* Allow her to speak in her natural voice and her own vocabulary, not yours.
* When you put her in the manuscript, allow her to talk directly to the reader --
Remember, the character and the reader are alone in a room and she must speak for herself. You won't be there to interpret for the reader.
* Don't allow her to hold back -- She needs to tell the important things to the reader even if she is afraid the reader won't like her.
Use the list to practice creating a character even if you have no story in mind now.
To demonstrate how I would go about discovering information about a character’s life and personality, here is a small part of an interview between a female character and me. The character's name is Leslie. The story is about a woman who was abused by her mother as a child and the effects of the abuse upon her adult life. The character was originally developed for a self-help book, “Stop the merry-Go-Round: Stories of Women who Broke the Cycle of Abusive Relationships,” McGraw-Hill. Years later, I used the character in a short story.
Leslie has told me that she is thirty-three years old, with four children. She's been divorced for a number of years. She works part-time and receives support from her ex-husband. That information tells me nothing about her. After I have the basic information about age, sex and marital status, I can begin probing:
"Leslie, who are you?"
"I told you, I'm divorced, I got kids. What else do you need to know?"
"I need to know who you are, not what your labels say. Labels tell me you are like half the women in your generation: divorced with kids. Tell me about who you would be even if you'd never married."
"Oh, you want all the dirt, right?"
"All the diamonds, too."
"All right, but you're not gonna like me very much after what I'm gonna tell you . . . I was abused by my mother when I was a child. I was abused by my husband as an adult. I abused myself with drugs and alcohol. I abused myself by having sex for money, or with men who had no love for me. It felt right at the time because I had no love for myself -- I still don't. I feel unworthy. I want to hurt Somebody. I hate myself." She paused, brushing her long hair from her face.
"If telling your story hurts too much, we can take a break."
"No, it's like dumping a can of garbage. No sense stopping in the middle. I'm not proud of much in my life. I take my anger out on my children. I destroy friendships through my anger and insecurity. I run to sick men to seek comfort and security. I don't know who I am.
“How do you handle all your pain?”
"I cover it all with jokes and smiles and assurances. I can't stop the pain. I'm thirty-three years old and still suck my thumb and play with a piece of satin to try to make myself feel better. Hey, I'm in great shape, aren't I?
“How do you feel about the people closest to you?”
"I hate men and I don't trust women. Sometimes, I even resent my kids because they are there and I want to be alone, or I want to go out and have fun."
"What is fun for you?"
"Fun . . . How about all the wrong things? I have this friend, see? He tells me I'm special and I have all kinds of good qualities. When he says those things to me, sometimes, I just want to rip his face off. Doesn't he know how much I want to believe those words but inside I know it's a crock and he's gonna be just like the others and want something back from me? Maybe if I shut my eyes he'll disappear."
"Leslie, how do you feel about the future?"
"I think I'm gonna be okay soon. See, there's this guy I met. He makes me feel great. He really turns me on. Maybe if we get it on, I can forget my pain and feel good for a little while. I have to keep it my secret though. Too much to lose if I talk about him to anybody ‘cause everybody is gonna tell me I'm not ready for a relationship. What do they know, anyway?"
Can you tell what she looks like from the way she presented herself? What were you able to see in her face when she talked? Sometimes, it is what we don't say to the reader that gives the best description.
The vignette above shows how one character presents herself. You don’t have to use a character who is broken by life. For your story, you can develop a character full of potential whose life is simple, yet her knowledge, perspective and life force make reading about her a must. Think of the protagonist, Scout, in "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee. Scout was a child with insights that carried the story. Her believability came from her experiences. What Scout knew and how she reacted to the world around her allowed Ms. Lee to weave a powerful tale. Only a small part of Scout’s history was revealed to the reader, but a great deal more could be inferred from the context of the story.
In interviewing the character, I created a life for her as well as a voice. In the vignette above, the character uses the word "I" more than any other word. She appears to be self-centered and oblivious to the feelings of others, and as a writer, I felt this speech pattern best presented her. It is important to choose a voice and words that fit your character. Developing the character's voice is a critical part of the task of the writer.
So, if you're game, sharpen your pencils and create a character. Start with a skeleton and then put some meat on his or her bones. Ask her about herself; you will get more information by asking than if you try to invent a life about her. As she speaks to you, she will take on a life of her own. Sometimes, in the process of interviewing a character, a new story idea emerges. Plots are few but characters are without number. The characters you have hidden within you can make the difference between an ordinary and an extraordinary story.
A CUT ABOVE THE REST
by Milton Trachtenburg
The word was out on the street before anyone had time to make a single phone call. "The meanest dude ever born must've just moved to town." The talk spread up and down the street filled with decaying brownstones, and the people who inhabited them, faster than a fire in an insured, unsuccessful business. For days all you heard on the street was conjecture, rumor, and the wild exaggerations that accompany too much talk, too much heat and too much cheap wine. It was, "Rodney this," and, "Rodney that." By the time the word got around for the second and third times, the story had the makings of a `B' movie script, a dirty ballad, a cheap detective novel. Maybe no one but me will ever know for certain what really happened. Maybe all I'm doing by telling you the story is contributing to the confusion. The newspapers sanitized it. Neighborhood gossip glorified it. The cops pretty much wrote it off as just another pimp war, though I'm sure they'd tell you differently. The question you might ask, is, what is someone like me doing associating with the likes of Rodney . . . ?
Rodney Webber was perhaps the most prosperous and most successful man who worked in his overcrowded and highly competitive business. People who knew him said, "That Rodney, he was born to be a pimp!" He didn't disappoint any of the well-meaning busybodies who gathered on the brownstone steps and rickety webbed chairs to share gossip and drink cool wine on hot days. Rodney Webber was, indeed, a mean man in a profession that called for mean men. He demanded 75 % of his ladies' earnings - and almost never got a short count. "I'm more than worth it," he would say. His girls had to admit that when they were straight with Rodney, he was straight with them. "Not only does he protect us, but he can be one hell of a good-time man," said Jade, his number one lady. "He was always buyin' me nice clothes and, let me just tell you something, was he some jazz man in the kip, if you know what I mean."
One of the Rodney stories that had been circulated for a long time and contributed significantly to his reputation as a ladies man, told of his first sexual encounter at the age of ten. The story was that four teenage girls from his neighborhood, all with particularly overactive glands, had decided to initiate Rodney as they had so many others they picked out on the mean streets where he grew up. Supposedly, they had lured him into an alley, held him down, pulled off his pants . . . "Lookit that thang!" one of them was heard to exclaim. About two hours later, the four girls left the alley with smiles on their faces. Rodney discovered that night that he had a power over women - and reveled in that knowledge. By the time he was eighteen, he began profiting from his knowledge.
Rodney believed in the eloquence and finality of lessons learned on the streets. Once, one of the customers used a soda bottle in a sadistic fashion upon the body of one of Rodney's ladies. For nearly a month she was unable to contribute to Rodney's accustomed high standards of living. This irked Rodney far more than any concern he might have had for the discomfort suffered by his employee. Shortly afterward, the unfortunate, but deserving customer was found with his brains splattered all over his living room carpet. The police determined without too much difficulty that the damage had been done by a soda bottle which was inserted indelicately into his anus after it was used to separate the top of his head from the remainder of his body.
Rodney knew that occasional exhibits of such violence not only protected the stable of women in his employ, but also served to keep them in line. "Violence swings both ways," Rodney would say. "Just so long as everybody know I'm the swinger! In more ways than one." Rodney liked to hum that old Jim Croce ballad, Bad, Bad Leroy Brown. Except, he believed he could take both Leroy and Slim! And, up to that time, anyway, no one had proven him wrong.
Rodney was a man of regular habits. One of his habits was to meet his `ladies' in a small, conveniently located, but little used park several times a day to collect the proceeds of their labor and to make certain that they were maintaining productivity levels commensurate with his economic needs. The gentle upward slope toward its center made the park a safe haven because it offered Rodney both a panoramic view of the surroundings and near invisibility from prying eyes. He stood on the crest under a gnarled oak tree. From that vantage point, he was able to see anyone who approached because they stood out in stark relief against the background of the well lit streets. Rodney hated surprises.
It was nearly midnight and the park was deserted. Nobody used the park after dark except people like Rodney and others who were up to no good. "Where the fuck are they?" Rodney said to the still night. "I find those bitches holdin' out on me, I'm gonna slice them one end to the other. They don't like Rodney's razor. Not even a little bit. They don't work for me, they don't work for nobody! They not here soon, I cut them so bad, when they spread their legs, they open clear to the chin!" Rodney smiled sadistically. He enjoyed hurting people - especially women. And, when things didn't go exactly as he planned, he became paranoid and his penchant for violence increased.
Rodney sensed more than saw or heard the presence of someone approaching. Alerted, he kept his hand firmly around the small caliber automatic he kept concealed in the pocket of his baggy jacket. "Hate to think about havin' to ruin another perfectly good $500 suede jacket, but, you know, business is business," he said to himself. He hadn't heard the squeaking of the hinges of the old iron gate on the fence surrounding the small park. That meant that someone had been in the park the whole time. He saw a movement in the shadows. Somebody's out there, he thought. And, whoever it is, better know who they're playing with! Rodney maintained his silent vigil. There was no light under the tree against which he leaned and even close up, Rodney appeared as just another huge gnarl on the old tree.
Rodney watched the woman emerge from the shadows about fifty yards from him. The mercury lamps along the pathway cast a purple glow upon a figure Rodney couldn't identify. Her long, slender, unsheathed legs below her black miniskirt and black leather jacket were juxtaposed against the darkness of the park which momentarily created the illusion of disembodied legs approaching him. When Rodney could see her outline more clearly, immediately he noted that the woman walked with a casual insouciance that told him that she was a working girl - definitely top-shelf.
The woman sashayed, more than walked, directly toward Rodney as if she knew exactly what she was doing. The click of her high-heeled boots ceased as she left the path and walked across the soft grass. Rodney maintained his sense of awareness, but calculated that she believed he was a John and was about to solicit him.
Man, is she in for a surprise, he thought. We'll just see who solicits who for what tonight. She's goin' to be working for a new main man before this night gets much older. Rodney temporarily forgot about his ladies as he concentrated on every movement of the lithe body approaching him. He was disturbed to find that he was becoming aroused. Hey, come on there, Rufus. This is business. You get your turn later. His penis wasn't listening, but simply becoming increasingly tumescent as the woman approached. Rodney didn't like feeling out of control - not even a little bit. His eyes were riveted on the triangle at the juncture of her legs, clearly outlined through her tight skirt. She ain't wearing nothing under that thiing. Damn!
"Got a light, mister?" Rodney had to glance upward to see her face. Even without the spike heel boots, she would have been somewhat taller than him. Rodney was always intimidated by tall women and compensated for his feelings by acts of bravado and coercion which kept them in fear of him.
"Pretty lady, I got anything you want." She stood close to him, her crotch almost rubbing against his pulsating erection. I swear I can feel the heat coming off her, Rodney thought as he reached into the pocket of his now too-tight slacks to offer her his solid gold lighter. Lookit my hand shaking. I'm acting like a twelve-year-old cherry, for Christ's sake! The woman held his shaking hand while she accepted the light he proffered. An electric shock passed through him as she brushed casually against his erection.
"Man! My imagination sure is runnin' in high gear tonight." He felt as if Rufus was going to jump out of his trousers and attack her without him if he didn't take action soon. Staring at her crotch, he became increasingly agitated when she failed to react. "No bitch can stare down Rodney and this one ain't goin' to be the first!" he thought.
"Want some?" she asked, staring brazenly at the obvious bulge in his trousers. "My, my! That is some beautiful piece of manhood you got there, mister."
"Yeah, baby, and I know how to use it to take you to heaven."
"Well, I've been about every place else. Maybe if you're nice, I'll show you some places you've never been before. How would that be?" As she spoke, she placed her forefinger on his lips and began tracing a pattern, first around his mouth, then straight down his center - past his chin and neck, through the center of his chest, slowly, inexorably downward. As she passed along his erection, Rodney shuddered involuntarily. She continued the line between his testicles and as her finger began the long climb up his back, she proceeded to slither between his legs face up making certain that her lips brushed against his testicles. Rodney gasped. He wanted to grab her and have her that moment, but he felt powerless to move. Her finger traced over the top of his head and back to his mouth. She pushed his mouth open forcing him to suck on her finger.
"Man!" was about all Rodney could say.
"Come on, let's go someplace really private. I haven't even begun with you."
A small voice deep inside Rodney was warning him that something was wrong but his throbbing erection was talking too loud for the voice to be heard. Rodney contemplated the security of having the revolver in his jacket pocket and the razor in the back pocket of his trousers. "Hey," he thought, "I've had grown men pissin' their pants when I come into a room. No way I need to worry about this skinny bitch. After I fuck her brains out, we see who's boss. Maybe Rufus deserves his turn first. Anyway, she just some hot-pants bitch lookin' to make some time. She's just pretendin' to be a workin' girl. We'll soon see just how good she is. Hang in there, Rufus."
Rodney remembered leaving the park, but time seemed to telescope after that. He awoke to find he had been transported to a bedroom. The blinking red light reflecting in the mirror above the dresser in the otherwise darkened room told him he was in a motel. Lying naked on the bed, he tried to reach up to scratch his nose but couldn't move his hand.
"What the fuck?" he hissed. By this time, he was more angry than frightened. "I'm tied to the damn bed. Hey!" He heard water running in the bathroom and the sounds of objects being placed on the vanity. Rodney's mind raced. "Maybe she's into kinky. That's fine with me, but don't nobody tie me up. I do the tyin'."
The bathroom door opened. The sudden light temporarily blinded him. When he reopened his eyes, the woman was standing at the foot of the bed.
"What you think you doin' to me, woman?" Rodney said in his most intimidating voice. She smiled and said nothing. "Hey! I'm talkin' to you!"
"I'm not really in the mood for talk. There's a lot of other things we can do."
"You untie me, an' I mean right now!"
"No, I don't think so. That would spoil everything. You just relax and let me do all the work, okay?" Her voice was calm and soothing and at the same time, the sexiest sound that he'd ever heard. Rufus was beginning to react again.
The woman placed one high-heeled booted foot on the bed. Rodney's gaze was riveted on her long white legs, now fully exposed. Her skirt was raised above her hips. "I was right!" he thought. "She's not wearin' a damn thing under that skirt." In the darkened room, the stark juxtaposition of the dark triangle at the juncture of her legs was more Rodney's imagination than reality.
"Why don't you take off those rags and let me see what you got, baby?" he cooed.
"All in good time, my dear. All in good time. Half the fun is the anticipation, right?"
Rodney relaxed since the more he strained against the ropes which bound him to the bed, the tighter they became. His thoughts returned to the foul-smelling alley where he was initiated into the rites of manhood by a group of `horny neighborhood chicks,' as he came to call them after the incident. "This is more of the same and I'm just goin' to lay back an enjoy it. Then after... man, is this bitch ever gonna be sorry she played with Rodney."
Perching on the foot of the bed, she kneeled and placed her hands on Rodney's bare legs. Slowly, she slid her hands along Rodney's legs and torso, careful not to touch his tumescent penis. The soft touch excited Rodney even more. She proceeded to kiss him, nibbling him all over. He moaned softly, totally forgetting his vow to destroy the woman. He was lost in the ecstacy of the moment.
Rodney thought he would explode before he had the chance to enter her body. His ego wouldn't permit him to lose control in the presence of a woman. He was unable to command his body and prayed that she would stop playing games and let him have his way with her. Just as he was about to ejaculate, she leaned back and stared at him. He was unable to decipher her expression.
"You ready for something you'll remember for the rest of your life?"
"If you are," Rodney answered, his bravado returning.
Without another word, she mounted him, drawing his penis deep inside of her. Rodney felt the muscles lining the walls of her vagina squeezing his ready to explode penis. Feeling the tension building in him. "Slow down, big guy. There's plenty of time. Just lay back and enjoy the show."
Rodney had no choice. He watched the muscles in her limber legs contract as she pushed herself up from him and then down upon him. He wished he could reach out and squeeze her breasts and thighs, maybe enough to put some hurt on her - "Women like that," he thought - but he had to take his time. Sooner or later she would cut him free, and then, "It's my way, bitch!"
The woman leaned forward and began biting his neck; first, tiny nibbles and then harder bites. She kept him tightly inside her all the while. Rodney winced at the pain and thought to himself that soon it would be his turn. Slowly, she sat erect again and while continuing to gyrate with Rodney inside her, slowly unbuttoned her blouse. Rodney could almost feel the soft silk as she pulled the blouse out of her waistband. When it was unbuttoned, she allowed it to hang free. He almost believed he could hear the whisper of the delicate material as it brushed against her nipples. She leaned forward so that her breasts hung free of the blouse. She passed them tantalizingly close to his mouth, but not close enough that he could touch them with his now puckering lips.
Rodney emitted a low moan and felt himself losing control. "Now, baby, now. Yeah, do it!" he shouted, oblivious to anything else. If he had noticed her reaching behind her back, he might have become frightened or cautious. If he had seen the flash of stainless steel as she brought her hand down between their joined bodies, he might have tried to make some kind of resistance. But, as fact would have it, just as he began to ejaculate, he felt a sharp pain at the base of his penis. He was so caught in the throes of ecstacy, that for a moment he did not realize what had happened. When he looked up, the woman was standing across the room, continuing to undulate. The enormity of the pain was beginning to hit him. He felt soaking wet, still not aware of what had just happened to him.
The woman stood at the foot of the bed, smiling. She flicked something wet and shiny on his chest. "Oh, here's your razor back. I won't need it any more. I told you it would be something you would remember for the rest of your life. She reached down between her legs and removed his now flaccid and detached penis from within her. She placed it delicately on his chest next to the razor.
"I'll bet you're asking yourself who, what, why, whatever - right? Well, I'm not the kind of girl who fucks and runs, so I'll tell you." The circle of blood emanating from Rodney's crotch was inexorably spreading. "Bleeding a little there, bunkie? Well, you certainly made enough other people bleed, one way or another."
Rodney was experiencing the kind of detachment that comes with severe shock. He felt more than saw his penis on his chest. "How did you...?" he slurred.
"How did I get you here? Simple. I've been following you for weeks and I know what makes you tick inside and out. That's just the way I am when I want to get someone badly enough. I was laying under a blanket in the park every night just waiting for you to show up. I watched you sit up there under your tree like the king of the hill. I watched you smacking those women around when they didn't give you as much money as you wanted. You know, if I hadn't already decided to kill you, what I saw would have given me reason enough.
"Anyway, to cut to the chase, when I played my little finger game with you, I had a little surprise on my finger. You couldn't imagine how easy it is for a nurse to get just the right prescription for the job. I knew your ego would make you do whatever I wanted you to. When you passed out, I brought you here, and you pretty much know the rest."
Rodney slurred something that the woman barely understood, but she knew what the next question would be. "Jeffrey Holt," she said. Rodney's eyes went wide with terror. "Yes, Jeffrey was a philandering pig and a lousy lay, but he was my husband. And, he didn't deserve to die the way he did with his brains splattered all over my carpet. I don't know, maybe I'm more upset about the carpet, but in any case, the score is settled."
Angela Holt removed her silk blouse which was covered with Rodney's blood and rolled it into a ball. When she exposed her breasts, even in his condition, Rodney had a last sexual reflex and opened his mouth into a wide `O' making it easier for Angela to stuff the blouse into his mouth in a single movement. "We wouldn't want you waking the neighbors - if you get uncomfortable, now would we?" Angela stepped out of the leather mini-skirt. From her oversized carry-all, Angela extracted slacks, a modest sweater, and a pair of Reeboks. She dressed quickly in a businesslike manner. "Now, that's more me."
Angela put the skirt and her spike heeled shoes in her bag and turned to leave. As if it were an afterthought, she turned back to Rodney. "I guess it's okay to take a souvenir of my adventure, isn't it?" She delicately picked up his penis as if it were a confection and placed it in her bag. "Oh, yes, let me leave you this," she said, laying his automatic on his chest next to the razor. "Maybe whoever finds you will get a kick out of seeing you lying there with your little automatic phallic symbol. I have to leave you something, after all!" She turned without a further word and left the room and Rodney's waning life as quietly and much more unobtrusively than she had entered it . . . .
On the mantle over the artificial fireplace in my apartment is a brine-filled jar containing what at first glance appears to be a large, darkened pickle. The contents amuse some of my friends and amaze others. When they ask me, "Angela, where the hell did you get that thing?" I smile mysteriously and say, "That's a long story. But it sure is a cut above the rest, isn't it?"
WORDPAINTING - WORDSMITHING - WORDFRAMING
A New Way to Look at your Writing
by Milton Trachtenburg
Writing is as simple as ABC -- make that WWW -- Wordpainting. Wordsmithing. Wordframing. How will these concepts help us better understand how to write for publication? The three words teach nothing new about the art and craft of writing, however, they may help writers prioritize the variety of tasks we need to perform from the genesis of a story idea through the act of handing a properly boxed manuscript to the postal clerk.
The ART of fiction writing is accessed through the writer’s hidden creativity, which emanates from the same source as dreams, wishes and fantasies and can be opened for conscious examination. Often, we can access our creativity through a few key words and phrases or by the imposition of an idea that can "trick" our minds to allow us to translate ideas into words. Words like 's'posin,' 'once-upon-a-time,' 'what if,' allow us conscious access to our creative muses. Muses never sleep but if we don't plug into them, they don't write, either. The idea that comes to us is raw and full of non-verbal images that need to be translated fore the reader into action. We can smell lilac perfume, but if we tell the reader we smell lilac perfume, the reader is shut out of the experience unless she has the pleasure of the memory of the scent of lilac. Our job as writers is to open the imagination of the reader so that she may share the experiences with us.
Words are the only connective tissue between writers and readers. Not only can we use words to connect with readers in the context of our writing, but we can also communicate with each other as writers using concepts that pique curiosity, stimulate imagination and allow us to visualize the writing process through a new perspective. We can focus on the art and craft of writing through a single concept. To help you to develop a single picture of a complex craft, I have chosen to condense the art and craft of writing into three functions: Wordpainting, Wordsmithing
Why did I develop this framework? As a teacher of writing, I developed it to help me spot check my own writing as well as help me understand what the needs of other writers might be. I hear questions such as: "I am writing a book and I want to know how to get an agent?" or, "I have an idea for a story. How do I find a publisher?"
New writers need to understand that the journey between an idea for a story and a completed manuscript that is ready for market is long, complex yet can be accomplished by anyone who is willing to exercise the discipline needed and follow a set of rules that tell editors that you understand writing. Very few, if any, writers "get it right" in a first draft. That is why we call the first writing a rough draft. The first task is to get the idea on paper or into your computer's memory. I call this process Wordpainting because it entails capturing raw ideas written as they emerge from your mind. The ideas turned to words become the material from which a publishable story may emerge. The rough draft is incomplete, not carefully developed, yet it follows an outline that gives it form and direction. The first draft is the basic story as it emerges from your mind. It is far from being ready to market. Even in this early draft, you need to follow rules of writing including:
Developing a plot outline so you know where the story is going.
Introducing strong, believable characters with motivation and goals.
Developing scenes that carry the story forward.
Introducing settings that are real and add to the context of the story.
Choosing a POV that best represents your story.
Wordpainting is the first step of the interaction between your imagination and the craft of turning an idea into writing. There are rules to follow; however, in the wordpainting phase of writing; you allow your imagination to guide the process as the story emerges. The creative process in writing is Wordpainting which begins with the discovery of story ideas within yourself. Wordpainting is memories rediscovered. Memories contain snippets of real conversations, including their sound and furies, incidents, objects, people you've met, real events in your life and information you have learned. When you co-mingle a variety of memories and mix with a liberal dose of "What if . . . ," a story is born in your imagination. Wordpainting is raw, undisciplined ideas that can be converted into words that allow others to share a three dimensional portrait. In the wordpainting phase of writing, we apply a general sense of discipline to our ideas so that a basic story will result in the first rough draft.
Transposing raw writing into a finished manuscript that will allow our readers to access their muses demands that we understand and use the tools of writing. There are few natural writers in the world, writers who never had to study writing to be successful. I guarantee you that they learned their craft after their first success -- an accident.
When you have completed your first rough draft, you have begun the process of writing a publishable manuscript. The second stage of writing is Wordsmithing. Wordsmithing takes the raw material we have written and turns it into a polished manuscript that will capture the interest of an editor or agent. A smith is an artisan who takes raw material and converts it into a unique finished product. As writers, we too, are craftspeople who take raw words and bend them, hammer them, add and delete them and empower them, until they surrender to our command, presenting the reader with a story that takes her for a ride on a magic carpet to a place that is both new and familiar. The elements of writing add dimension to simple grammatical correction.
In this era of visual entertainment, sound bytes and a lowering of standards for reading, writers must employ some of the same techniques that are used in screenplays to engage readers. A published book with dead language guarantees it will be put back on the shelf, never to be seen--and more important-- never talked about again. Sleep with a dictionary and dine with a thesaurus. Make them our servants and masters. Often, the best word is not the fanciest. It is the one that conveys the exact meaning needed to move the story forward. The words you seek must show your story rather than tell it. They must convey to the reader the energy, the action and the breath of life in the characters.
The CRAFT of writing consists of taking our disobedient child of a muse and converting her random expressions into saleable prose. Wordpainting provides a shortcut that can elicit an outline of the steps we need to take from accessing the muse to submitting a finished product to an editor. Wordpainting begins with the first commandment: Thou shalt not accept a first rough-draft as a finished product. The second commandment is: Read with your ears so you may hear what the reader hears. Allow the power of the words to touch you.
To be word smiths, we need to have a thorough understanding of all the elements of crafting a strong story. We need to understand how to write a great beginning, including a hook that keeps our readers moving along with us. We need to understand how to make certain our POV is employed with consistency from the beginning of the story through the denouement. We must choose words that keep the action flowing through the difficult middle of the story and make certain that as we solve the problems, we create new and believable problems the protagonist must resolve. We must make certain that our characters are believable and that their dialogue establishes ongoing conflict and never sounds mundane.
If Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Brown meet in real life they might say . . .
“Why hello Mrs. Brown. I haven’t seen you in ages. Is everything okay?”
“Why, thank you for asking. I’ve just been so busy. It’s canning season, you know.”
If Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Brown met on the pages of a book, however, the conversation might look more like this . . .
“Oh! Mrs. Brown. I thought . . .”
“Yes, people are always thinking, aren’t they?”
We need to make certain our locale and setting is interesting, relevant to the story and detailed enough so our characters never appear on an empty stage unless the tale begins . . . "The
last man on earth sat alone in a room, and there was a knock on the door."
The setting we Wordpaint must be researched thoroughly so that a character is not left standing on Fourteenth Street in Philadelphia.. There is no Fourteenth Street in Philadelphia. The street between Thirteenth Street and Fifteenth Street is called Broad Street. That little mistake (and I have seen that very one in a published mystery) could cost us several million potential readers. Once we establish that we don't know what we are talking about, we lose the reader for the rest of the manuscript, perhaps forever.
The tasks of Wordsmithing are too numerous to make an all-inclusive list. However, we might begin with the following tasks:
Checking grammar, spelling and punctuation and upgrading every questionable word.
Eliminating dead adverbs and replacing them with strong verbs.
Checking existing verbs to use the most powerful ones to describe action.
Touring your thesaurus to ascertain that every word is the best one for the job.
Merciless cutting of excess verbiage.
Checking the plot to see that there are no loose ends.
Making certain that every problem you introduced is resolved.
Checking the dialogue to make certain it contains conflict and keeps the story moving.
Reviewing the scenes to make certain they are in proper order so they can move the story forward.
Reviewing flashbacks to see to it that the segues are clearly defined for the reader.
Rechecking you foreshadowing to be sure you weren't too obvious.
Reviewing the manuscript for mistakes in locales.
Checking to make sure the characters kept the same identity throughout the story.
Listening to the manuscript to determine if the words flow smoothly.
In order to develop a thorough understanding of the issues in the above list, we need to “hit the writing books” and learn each element of the craft in detail. My focus in this article is to provide a framework within which the rules and tools of writing can take a great idea and convert it into a publishable finished product. As a matter of fact, each item in the list is represented by volumes on each of the subjects.
Only after the above tasks (Wordpainting and Wordsmithing) have been completed are we ready to move on to the final stage of the writing process, Wordframing. Wordframing is an examination of the tasks of writing that are external to the process of writing, revising and editing the manuscript. Wordframing is packaging your product in a form that will attract the gatekeepers to the publishing world-- editors and agents.
The tasks of Wordframing include:
Knowing how to construct a query that will attract the attention of an editor or agent.
Understanding the protocols of the writing profession.
Researching the marketplace.
Understanding how to format a manuscript.
Knowing what to say in a query, and more important, how to say it
Picking the right agent, editor and publishing house.
Think of Wordframing in the context of visual art. The proper frame highlights a picture and sells it. It is not part of the picture, yet, in the wrong frame, the most wonderful work of art would be difficult to sell. A picture must also be featured in the right gallery. A post-modern masterpiece in a renaissance gallery will not sell. In the same way, you need to pick the best publisher. The wrong publisher will reject your manuscript not because your work is unworthy, but because he doesn't publish that type of book. Even more frightening is the possibility that he will accept
your manuscript but won't have the outlets to market it.
Many new writers are not aware of all the steps described above, and they have not yet discovered the kinds of help that are available to them. Trial and error is a hard way to learn to write. We could spend a lifetime without discovering what editors will publish and what they will reject, especially since many editors change jobs frequently. One of my goals as both student and teacher of writing has been to work towards making it unnecessary for editors to waste their time and energy rejecting us. Letters of acceptance are so much more pleasant to write -- and to receive.
The "secret" to learning how to write well is: there are no secrets. Just like the successful book, "Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," Most of what writers need to know has already been written, either in "how-to" books and manuals or in literature itself. All we need to do is read and use them. Of course, I'm oversimplifying. What we need to do is to translate what we can learn from the "how-to" books, classes and groups and published works of other writers into our own writing. Applying knowledge into writing is far easier to say than to do. Every time we read about writing, talk about writing or practice writing, we learn something new about writing.
When have we learned enough? Never. The demands of the market and the desires of the reader are in a perpetual state of flux, so we must continue to learn and grow to be successful.
The fun part of writing is the part I call Wordpainting. It is the first exposure of our ideas to the printed page. We understand every nuance. We hear the music in the background and hear the sounds of traffic. We smell the fresh mown grass and feel the loamy dirt beneath our fingernails. What every writer must accomplish is to convey the impressions from our private, inner world to the reader. Upon completing a first draft of our manuscript, our job as writers begins rather than ends.
Wordpainting without Wordsmithing and Wordframing is analogous to making a sandwich without bread and then serving it without a dish. You may have wonderful ingredients, but there is nothing to hold them together, nor have you provided a means to carry them away from the kitchen counter.
Learning how to write for publication is an arduous task, but when the first acceptance arrives from an editor, you will know that it was worth all the months of struggling. If you can determine some of what you need to learn through the framework provided in this article,, and if, as a result, you learn to organize and use the tools of writing more efficiently, then I will have accomplished my purpose in introducing you to Wordpainting, Wordsmithing and Wordframing
A LETTER TO A WRITING STUDENT
Some time ago, a student in one of my writing classes sent me a letter asking why writers need to follow rules. “Why can’t we simply be creative?” In assessing the issue she presented, I had no simple answer I could provide her. However, the question led me to think about writing in a historical context. We take for granted the benefits and curses of mass communication. It is only in the past century that books have been distributed widely throughout the world.
My thoughts regarding the issue she raised were the subject of a letter I wrote to her. My response was as follows:
April 22, 2002
I hope that your increasing knowledge of writing hasn't gotten in the way of your natural, creative inclination. A deep separation lies between the creative process of writing and the structural work you need to accomplish when the main idea is on paper (or screen). Before you think about revising, first write what you feel. Allow it to come out as you imagine it. Remember, good writing didn't evolve from rules; good rules evolved from writing. When a particular sentence, passage or story proved to be pleasing, scholars examined it to determine what about it pleased the reader’s senses. Every creative and evolutionary act explores new territory. The best writing broke the barriers that preceded it, but the writer had a deep and thorough understanding of writing precedent. My own theory is that the great writers had a natural ability to choose words that opened all of the reader’s senses.
Analysis allows others to understand how a writer used or broke precedent to create her story. Great writers of earlier centuries did not have the advantage of volumes about the art and craft of writing to aid them. They learned basic grammar, spelling and punctuation in school, and had a gift of internal organization that made their words memorable. We attempt to recreate the kinds of wonders they discovered so that we may please our readers.
Few plots are original. Shakespeare rewrote the history of kings and emperors, adding fictional events and characters to the mix, to turn history into a dramatic adventure. Henry Miller depicted portraits of lust, love and the hedonistic/artistic life in Paris. But, the words they each chose to describe their stories and the dialogue their characters spoke lifted their works above the crowd.
As more people became literate, the number who attempted to write grew exponentially; rules became more complex and were given more attention. In earliest times, only academics and clerics wrote -- or read. Few others were literate. For the most part, the academicians and clergy wrote for colleagues, not the general public. Books, until a few centuries ago, were handwritten. Often, only one copy of a book was produced. Oral communication, by necessity, served the masses.
The lines separating painting and sculpture from other forms of communication are blurred at best. The single commonality is that all have rules. What makes Mr. Strunk and Mr. White experts on how words should be aligned? The answer is simple: They were students of the written language. They took principles of language structure that evolved over centuries and codified a set of rules that could be applied to the emerging field of mass communication of published writing. The inventions of the printing press, the typewriter, the computer, and rapid transmission and transportation of ideas and materials created a burgeoning market for the written word; the development of right to education laws in most countries created an informed society that cried out for reading material.
Rules of writing were never meant to stultify creativity. They were developed to organize it in a manner that gave publishers a yardstick by which they could measure new works and writers some guidelines that would help them focus their natural talents.
How do we know when a work is salable? Simple: When it sells it is salable. What do editors look for when they examine a writer's submission? At the intersection of your writing and the editor’s keen eye is where the rules of writing come into play. It is possible to measure a work against a set of constant rules when it fails to flow naturally. Rules allow us to explain why a particular work will not be pleasing to readers. For writers whose work has stood the test of time, such as: Shakespeare, Hemingway, O'Neill, Angelou, Miller (both Henry and Arthur), to name a few, their marvelous ability to organize ideas into powerful manuscripts gave them the ability to know which word or twist of plot would give their writing the meaning they desired it to have. Their writing acumen was analogous to the musical genius of Mozart; he wrote complex musical compositions at such a tender age that he could not possibly have first learned music theory. His works came out whole as if a tape recording was playing in his head.
I remain intrigued by the writing process. Learning how to write isn't about finding answers. Rather, it is about developing more effective questions. It isn't about rote memorization of rules. It is about fine-tuning writing to eliminate sloppy thinking, ineffective choices and obtuse descriptions. I couldn't tell you what many of the complex rules of grammar are off the top of my head. I'm not an English teacher who needs to express rules daily to teach them to others. Both my professional pursuits – writing and the practice of therapy call for the use of words that are specific and leave no unintentional ground for vagueness. I couldn't tell you the rules of tenses, however, an alarm bell goes off in my head when I mismatch them in a sentence or paragraph. The alarm sounds more frequently and accurately as I add daily to the sum my writing output; I am more aware of the kinds of mistakes I tended to repeat.
Learning any professional skill means accepting that there is a need to improve and grow. Writing is neither dream nor chore. It is a calling -- an old and noble one that began as an ability to create pictures that evolved into printed and spoken words. Written language is a latecomer to human evolution. A hot meal was always available for the chronicler of tribal history and the font of tribal legends. Thus began non-fiction and fiction as separate categories of communication. Now you know who to blame. The status of the chronicler was unique and revered. The knowledge carrier was exempt from hunting and war. The carrier of knowledge was as important as the fire that kept away the cold and cooked the food. Would that those early rules still applied. Today, telling stories is not sufficient to attain a hot meal. Today, a story must be crafted into a mold that allows the publisher to assess our work against a table of probabilities. He asks: Will it sell? rather than, “How well written is it?”
In the same way that the lottery has a new winning number every day, new books, magazines, journals are printed, electronically published and distributed to a world that absorbs words faster than we can write them. Like the lottery, for the many who chance to submit, few will win. However, if you remember only one think I say here, it is that good writing always finds a market. Always. The trick? Know enough about the rules of writing to be able to make an accurate assessment of what good is.
Lollipops and Unicorns,
Monday, May 09, 2005
A WRITER'S LAMENTS
One particular skill is in how well you choose your similes and metaphors. Poor choices will leave the readers laughing at your funerals and crying at your weddings. Words are the magic few writers can control and most are too lazy to learn how to use to the maximum effect. Writing effective metaphors and similes is walking a fine line becasue a large percentage of possible choices have already been used by others. When a reader recognizes the words as the work of anohter writer or writers, he or she has a tendency to discredit your work so that you are reduced to the role of copycat instead of originator.
My pet writing peeve is: Why the hell do such a plurality of writers begin everything they write with a weather report . . . or worse yet, with a pronoun? When the first sentednce i read says, "It was a dark and stormy night," perhpas I am being an elitist, but I already have assigned two strikes to the work. In like manner, any report of the weather needs to be followed up with a lead into the storyline in which the weather plays an important role. A dark and stormy night is a necessity if it is going to set the stage for a road washout, a pholeline down, a car accident . . . but if what follows it demonstrates that the weather was simply a carpet shaker -- a techniquer used by the writer to get the dust out of his memory banks -- then I will read with less enthusiasm becasue I will feel deceived. I don't mind if I am deceived intentionally as the plot thickens. That is one of the thrills of reading. However, when I am subjected to the writer's lazy mind, the writer has taken a firsat step to becoming an unread work amongst a library that is now almost unmanageable in size and scope.
The fact is, that unless the weather is important to the story, it is best only hinted at as the least important fact you can give a reader at the beginning of a story that is being conducted indoors. And for making "He" or "She" the first word of a story tells the world that the writer cares not a lick for the reader. You know who he or she is and you not only won't share it with the reader, you think the reader cares about your anonymous he or she. Further, there is a hint that the wrter hasn't done his or her homework. The writer may not have thought enoughb about he or she to even have given them a name, let alone a backstory.
All stories must have a purpose beyond the ego of a writer who thinks you will want to read anything he says. I have seen some truly good writing from newer writers but few who are willing to risk sharing it. One of the reasons for the fear is that many who are poseurs in the writing world love to criticize others when they haven't yet produced anything of merit themselves. They teach before they learn. At the same time, without a group giving feedback, it is impossible to learn to write becasue it is the reader for whom we are writing. If we write to please only ourself, we might as well think instead of write and save all the wasted paper or gigabytes.
Writing is silent sound. We need to develop the technique of hearing the words that are on a screen or on a piece of paper. Without the sound and the rhythm, the yin and the yang, we have a sketch, not a painting. I end where I began which is just another technique that can make writing either grand or petty -- based on how you pulled it off.
Wednesday, April 06, 2005
AMAZING CHARACTERS ON A WRITER'S BLOCK
Writer's Block can be the two most frightening words in a writer's vocabulary. In my daily experiences online and off, I hear so many "stuck" writers asking for help and calling their problem "Writer's Block." I hear a multitude of remedies offered: sit down and write, work on other writing tasks, edit, work on submissions and research. Some say that the way to break the block is to force yourself to sit in front of your desk even if you can't write, or even if what you write is nonsense. Others claim that imagery or writing exercises will open your mind to creativity.
In my opinion, there's good news and bad news regarding all the solutions offered. The good news is: all of the above methods work. The bad news is: no one method works for everybody. For myself -- and I'm not promising this method would work for anyone else -- when I am unable to decide how to begin writing a story, or don't know where it is going, I get into the head and life of a character. When we write, we need to think of a story as a flow of events. Life always goes somewhere and if you flow with the character, she will solve many of your problems about what to write. Ask questions such as: What would the particular character do in the plot you created? Before we were old enough to know the alphabet, some of us filled our lives with amazing characters. At age three, the characters were as real to us as anyone else in our world. The trick to writing amazing characters is to allow that same capacity to function for you as an adult. My four-year-old granddaughter taught me a few new twists on creating characters from my then four-year-old granddaughter when she told me all about her imaginary sister who was bull-headed, mouthy and bossy and wanted to do what my granddaughter did. With a character like that, I thought, I would simply record her actions, I could never dictate her actions, thoughts or feelings.
Stories are difficult to write -- at least for me. When a story comes to an abrupt halt, I try to get back into the characters that are stuck rather than the story that is stuck. Where are they going and where did they want to go at the beginning? What motivates them into action? Is the road you chose for the character one she would have chosen for herself? Sometimes, you back a
character into a corner from which she can't extricate herself because she could in no way have made the decision that got her there in the first place. For example: A shy, God-fearing, church woman of high moral values finds herself torn between two men who are as opposite as day and night. One offers her security, love and devotion. The other offers passion, lust and danger. To force this woman into a position of choice, the writer must first find a way to strip her of her moral upbringing. Every behavior, every choice a character makes, requires justification. When you find yourself blocked, it is often because you have not prepared the character to move forward, or if you haven't begun your story, it may be because you do not have a character with enough interesting quirks and qualities to force you to write about her.
Sometimes, you have to retrace your steps to see where you went off the road that you needed in order to take you to the story's conclusion. Every chapter or story segment is like a fork in a road. Take a wrong one and you may reach a dead end even though you have a promising beginning. Allow the character to make a different choice at a critical juncture where the story went astray. If you look at all fiction as a biography of characters, you will see yourself writing about the life adventures of interesting fictional people you create from your own memories, intuition and experiences. For example, if you were telling the story of Hilary Clinton after having done all your research, would you be likely to hit a roadblock? Treat your characters as if they were celebrities and you will find you can never say nearly all there is to say about them.
To demonstrate how I might create a story, I will try to create a character "on the fly," one I never used, never thought about and only this moment will begin to develop and enhance. I will start with a character, develop the premise for the story out of the character, then try to demonstrate how you might write a story without first having a plot direction.
I'm going to take you through my thought processes with me as I flesh out the details of a character's life. Hopefully, as I discover where the character has been, a potential plot of what might happen may develop. First, I need a character . . . . I prefer a female protagonist. My writing focuses upon relationships and feelings. So, here goes . . . Her name is . . . Niki. How
do I know? I see her face, narrow, thin-lipped, grey eyes, big as saucers, bright as quarters. She's . . . fourteen years old. Behind her, I see a trailer court -- the kind that sparked the stereotype -- trailer trash. To her left is a washed-out woman -- same face, same eyes -- fifty pounds heavier, gray eyes deader than coal-ash, appearing older than her years, hair, frizzy-permed like her daughter's hair. I never met either character before this moment, but as I imagine them from a writer's perspective, characteristics, traits, loves, losses, desires, quirks and
moods develop before my eyes. I've known Niki in other roles in life and I could meet her and her Mamma on The Jerry Springer Show, or on the city page of the daily paper where people like Niki and Mamma are bred for trouble and only with Herculean effort can they overcome the lack of learning that was needed for raw survival in a dangerous and defeating world.
Now, I've combined my own experiences and knowledge to develop two fictional characters that have potential to become the center of a story. They will both need a great deal of background and justification to make them believable. After the characters become almost real to me, my job as a writer is to present them with a series of obstacles and challenges they must either overcome or be defeated by them. The characters, not I, will make the choices. If they choose to solve the problem in one shot, I have flash fiction. If they smack into a few brick walls, it is a short story. If, however, they take the piece of string I hand them and turn it into the Gordian knot, I have an epic novel!
Now for a premise. Niki has big dreams. She wants to study ballet. Before I write another word, I ask Niki if this fits with her dreams. The only ballet she has ever seen was on a broken-down black and white television. In her fantasies, she wants to become a professional dancer. When she looks in the mirror at her lithe, muscular body, she imagines herself on a stage wearing a diaphanous costume, and held aloft by the powerful hands of a stud-muffin dancer. I will remember that line because when she is confronted with reality, I may have a comparison between dreams and reality that will engage the character and the reader. Mamma had the same
dream 15 years earlier. Her dream ended in a sweaty tryst in the back seat of a ratty car. She remembered that her foot rested in a pizza box as she pretended to experience the throes of passion.
See how the story grows? Ideas keep arriving without thinking about them. Each idea may or may not be significant and may later be edited out, but at the beginning of this story, I believe I could write about 7500 words about a day in the life of Niki Peeples. Just like that, she has a last name.
There are enough clues to write a dozen stories, each ending differently. Had I started with a premise, the characters would not have been as full of energy and conflict. By starting with the characters, their lives expand each time I turn to them. Within about three paragraphs, Niki will have a dozen quirks and Mamma will be fleshed-out with a backstory that sets up a conflict with Niki's desires. Now, I can add, for Mamma, a boyfriend - a drunken misfit, and for Niki, a schoolgirl crush. I may want to begin expanding the list of characters to include a teacher who is an unheeded guardian angel. A perfect way to increase tension is to have a character point out the obvious to the protagonist who disregards the information. The reader then knows something which the character refuses to accept. In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the soothsayer warns Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March.” His failure to heed the prophesy results in his death.
The story begins to take on a life of its own and the only task I will need to perform for the first draft is to determine which words best tell the story. There are decisions to be made. Who will narrate? Will it be Niki? The Teacher? The ubiquitous Third Person POV?
It is obvious to me what tense I would write in -- past tense -- it is already a fait accompli and is being told to the reader. Personal taste: present tense works only if the events are happening as you are writing. Present tense stories need to be told almost in real time. Niki's story is a recollection on the part of someone. I have yet to choose who will best serve the story.
Thinking about writing, writing about writing and writing itself keep a writer from ever having to deal with writer's block. One more thing: if you ever find yourself unable to write, you can always edit a piece you've already written. Editing opens most of the blockages and blows out all the brain flossies that crowd out creativity. However, in order to edit, you must first write. Find the tool that works for you. Start off where you feel most comfortable. My method works best for a professional daydreamer like myself. My childhood was spent creating imaginary playmates and impossible scenarios in which to place them: this was long before I contemplated writing for publication.
On a gray morning that may hold promise of improving as the day progresses, these are my writing thoughts. Hmmm . . . maybe thinking about the slate-colored sky gave me the idea for Niki's gray eyes. Now, I can't wait to sit down and write her story. So, you see, I've just opened a new road I didn't know existed. Will I find it blocked? I doubt it. I'm already intrigued by the characters who have appeared. There are so many adventures and misadventures through which I can take them. Potential for conflict, and conflict itself, are the engines that move the story forward.
If you feel blocked, sit down in a comfortable chair and create characters. Talk to them. See which one has an interesting story about her life. Discover all you can about your character without feeling that you have to write anything. If she intrigues you, write her biography up to the day your story begins. What you have written is her backstory. Now, create a situation that will lead to a conflict within her, between her and other characters, or between her and a force of nature. Allow her to make the decisions as to how she will handle the crisis. Now, you are writing.
Writer's Block? As you sharpen your writing tools you overcome the inhibitions that you call writer’s block. Writer's block then becomes the street where you live.
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE
by Milton Trachtenburg
The warm, summer sun shined through the still-closed curtains, its strong rays cutting a diagonal across the king-size bed. Robert tried to hold on to the last moments of sleep, his back to the insistent sun. He heard kitchen sounds, bacon frying, water splashing in the sink, the refrigerator door closing, penetrating his tranquil slumber. He moaned softly, and rolled into a tight ball, pulling the covers over his head. He tried to ward off the beginning of another day. The smell of fresh coffee brewing permeated the air and served as a siren's call demanding that he get up to face the day.
"Wake up and smell the coffee!" Joanne, began every workday by calling up the stairs and waking Robert.
Robert tried without success to hold onto the beautiful and pliant young thing he had created in his dream, pursued and was in the process of thoroughly enjoying. The nubile young dream-love was replaced by the reality of the of his wife's strong high-pitched voice calling him from the kitchen. He recalled his first meeting with Joanne, eighteen years earlier. He thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world. Hell,he thought, she's not bad for thirty-three and two kids, but she sure isn't sixteen.
"C'mon, Robert, you don't want to be late for work, do you?"
Work, he thought. As a matter of fact, I do want to be late for work. It's a nowhere job, nothing salary, nonsense work. "I'm coming," he mumbled, his tongue still coated with sleep moss. "Be up in a minute." Sadly, he said a last goodbye to the nubile, young thing and stuck one foot tentatively out from under the covers. He imagined what it might be like waking up next to Miss No Name instead of his workaholic wife who was out the door as he came down the stairs. "Breakfast," he muttered disgustedly. He thought, what's so important about breakfast? Just once, it might be nice to spend a little time playing in bed.
"Coffee's on!" came the insistent voice from below.
Rolling out of bed and stumbling into the bathroom, Robert resisting coming fully awake. He peered at his bleary image in the medicine cabinet mirror, trying mightily to overlook the increasing jowl line where his once-firm jaw resided. "Gotta cut back on the eating," he said resolutely, knowing he didn't mean a word of it. Removing his pajamas, and avoiding looking at his ever-increasing paunch, he tried unsuccessfully to remember himself as a slim, firm kid who was every girl's dream date in high school. He admitted only to himself that his social prospects were bleak in high school.
He turned to enter the shower and disgustedly pulled at Joanne's pantyhose draped over the top of the shower door. One of these days, I'm going to get tired of being assaulted by her damned pantyhose and make her eat them! he thought. Opening the bathroom door, he threw his pajamas on the bedroom floor then reached into the shower, carefully adjusting the water. He thought of fussy Goldilocks as he did so. "Not too hot, not too cold. Ah, just right!" For a brief moment, he thought about ravishing Goldilocks in the shower, but his reverie was interrupted. "Yow!" he screamed as the water turned from hot to boiling. "Can't you learn to leave the water the hell alone for five minutes while I shower?" he screamed. He finished showering, mumbling curses under his breath as he toweled himself dry.
Robert cut himself shaving -- twice -- and covered the bleeding cuts with scraps of toilet paper. His anger toward Joanne continued to build as he dressed. The middle buttons of his tailored shirt barely closed over his increasing girth. Maybe if I didn't have so many things to worry about, I wouldn't eat so much, he thought. He finished dressing and, with resignation, began a slow descent down the carpeted stairs. The smell of coffee, toast and bacon permeated the air, and for a moment, Robert was overcome by his appetite and almost forgot that he was angry at Joanne. He thought of all of the breakfasts she had made for him over the years.
As Robert entered the kitchen, Joanne said, "Hey, Rob, wake up and smell the coffee."
"Smells the same as every other morning."
Joanne reacted as though she'd been struck. It's over, she thought. She felt as though something inside her had realigned, and, although she couldn't immediately identify what was happening, she felt that her marriage might be ending. However, if anyone had asked her whether she loved her husband, her knee-jerk reaction would have still been to say, "Of course!" Over time, something special had eroded. She had not yet begun to define it consciously, but it had finally shifted the fabric of her being.
Joanne stood still, a spatula in her hand. The eggs she had been frying began scorching. Robert, without noticing any change in his wife of fourteen years, simply stated, "Hey! The eggs!"
Joanne paid no attention and continued staring into space, lost in her own thoughts. "C'mon, what's with you today?"
"With me?" Joanne asked, caught in a warp between two worlds. Automatically, she reached over and turned off the stove. Too many years of responsibility had accumulated for her to become irresponsible at this late date. Without thinking, she took the pan and scraped the eggs into the sink and pushed them into the garbage disposal with the spatula.
"You've wasted perfectly good eggs," Robert intoned, with parental indignation.
"Yes, I've wasted perfectly good eggs," Joanne replied, more to herself than to Robert. She put the pan and spatula in the sink, turned off the stove, wiped her hands on a towel and walked out of the room without a word, leaving Robert standing in the middle of the kitchen, completely dumfounded.
"Well, what do you expect me to do now?" Robert asked, in part sarcastic and part with a new sense of fear creeping into his being. In all of the years that they had been together, Joanne had never acted like this, and Robert did not know what to make of it. Joanne didn't answer, but continued walking out of the room and up the stairs. Robert began fumbling angrily with the toast and bacon. He had never buttered a piece of toast in his life, and when he tried, it tore into several pieces, with the butter spread mostly on the dish. He took the bacon out of the pan and couldn't understand why it was so greasy. When Joanne served it to him it was dry and crisp, just the way he liked it. Maybe she's got, whatchamacallit, PMS.
When Joanne reached their bedroom, she was shaking almost uncontrollably. She had known for some time that her marriage was not perfect, but then again, whose was? she thought. Nothing is ever going to be different. This last thought passed so swiftly that she barely took cognizance of it.
Joanne studied herself in the bedroom mirror. The face that stared back at her was an attractive face, a face with smooth skin, a spray of freckles across a pert nose, serious grey eyes, and just traces of delicate wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. Not at all bad for thirty-three she thought. She pictured her friends, most of whom looked ten years older than she. And not a single grey hair, though Lord knows, I've had enough aggravation to earn a goodly number.
The bright blue numbers on the clock showed 8:10. Joanne panicked for an instant, thinking the kids had missed the school bus. She caught herself and realized that, first of all, the kids were responsible enough to remember the bus without any reminder from her and secondly, they were away in camp for the summer. She had to concentrate to picture them as thirteen and eleven-year-olds. Robert, Jr., had the good fortune to have been blessed with his father's good looks and her good sense, although Rob always claimed that his son was an exact duplicate of himself at the same age. Erica, looked like Joanne's grandmother, and was so bright and talented that sometimes Joanne was frightened for her.
Joanne thought for a moment about how her daughter had spontaneously developed interests in writing and painting without any encouragement. Robert had told her that she better concentrate on something in school that could make her a living. "After all," he intoned, "this is the '90's, and you can't expect a man to take care of you all your life." Even though she was only eleven, Erica looked at her father with her dark, brooding eyes, and Joanne could see that even though she seemed to be agreeing with him, she would pick her own destiny. For a moment, Joanne reminisced about her own more limited life choices. She shiverred involuntarily.
Joanne picked up her appointment book from the nightstand. Briefly, she contemplated the cover with the bright red lettering, BRICKMAN REALTY, INC., noting that her first appointment wasn't until 10:00 o'clock. She had begun her career as a real estate salesperson when the kids were preschoolers. In the early years, she worked only part-time, making her schedule fit with Rob's. She rarely used baby sitters because Rob believed, that it was a mother's job to raise young children. "After all," he would say, "my mother stayed home full-time to take care of me, and I turned out all right, didn't I?" As always, Joanne compromised. Her first major compromise came when Rob wanted to get married when she was nineteen. Unlike most of her friends, Joanne, didn't have to get married. Although she and Rob began sleeping together when she was seventeen and he was nineteen, she always made him use protection until she got up the nerve to go to the local clinic and get fitted for a diaphragm. Joanne didn't want any little mistakes she would have to spend a lifetime caring for.
Joanne became pregnant four months after she and Rob were married after her sophomore year in college. She was wearing her diaphragm, but . . . After recovering from the initial shock, she joked about the poor state of American made products, and Rob retorted with his own comment about the best planned lays. Joanne's major regret was that she was forced to leave college shortly before Robert, Jr. was born. She lost her merit scholarship, and although she went back to school sporadically to take courses that interested her, she never completed her degree. She never blamed Rob, but always felt that she avoided finishing her education to placate him. Rob never went to college but built a career as an industrial salesman. He denigrated formal education as something that fills airheads with extra helium. He spent an inordinate amount of time complaining about the college educated young know-nothings who were promoted over him.
Joanne removed her nightgown, folded it, and placed it at the bottom of the bed. Without thinking, Joanne made the bed. She noted Rob's pajamas in a bundle on the floor where he often would leave them. She picked them up, folded them neatly and set them next to her nightgown. Everything in its place, she thought. She padded into the bathroom, turned on the shower, stood under the hot water and began crying. Joanne was never one to show her feelings, but this time cried uncontrollably for almost five minutes, the sound of the shower drowning out her sobs.
When she felt more in control, Joanne finished showering, and went back into the bedroom without drying herself. She stood dripping in the middle of the room, creating an increasingly large, dark water stain on the light blue carpet. She looked at herself in the full-length mirror on the closet door. For six years, she asked Rob to hang it. Finally, she got so fed up, she hired someone to do it.
Joanne examined her body critically, as if seeing herself for the first time. Thirty-three years, two kids, one miscarriage, and hard work had done little to age her still-trim body. She noted a little thickening at her waist, and her breasts sagged just slightly, but, overall, she was pleased with what she was seeing. She took pride in how she cared for herself, and resisted giving in to her abominable sweet tooth. Rob complained constantly about how old she was getting, but she failed to see what it was he was complaining about. "Girl," she said, "I don't think I'll kick you out of bed just yet. You've got a few more dances in you."
Joanne failed to notice that Rob had come into the room and was watching as she studied herself in the mirror. She stretched, and did a pirouette, remembering the movement from long-ago dance lessons. "Oh," she exclaimed as she nearly bumped into Rob as she turned. She self-consciously reached for her nightgown and held it in front of her. Joanne had never been modest with Rob, and it startled him when she covered herself. He was already confused by her actions this morning, and this last affront was more than he could handle.
"What the hell is it with you today?" Rob yelled, his face inches from Joanne's. "What did I do? Did I cheat on you? Did I spend my pay on booze? Did I beat you? Well?"
Joanne just stood still for a moment, looking at Rob and, perhaps, seeing him for the first time. "No, Rob, no, no, and no. I . . . I don't know how to say this, but . . ."
"You're having an affair. That's what it is, isn't it? One of those real estate 'magnets' who makes all kinds of money? I'm not good enough any more, is that it?" Rob's lower lip was quivering and he was near tears.
Yeah, Joanne thought, one of those real estate 'magnets' who I got stuck on. She tried not to laugh at her own joke but found herself smiling.
"I don't think it's very funny!" Rob sputtered, holding back tears.
"Oh, Rob, come on. I'm not having an affair. I've never been with another man. You know that." Joanne realized that this was not the time to talk about her feelings. She knew that Rob wouldn't hear her.
Rob reached for Joanne, but she pulled back, saying, "Rob, I'm all wet. You don't want to get your suit wet when you have to leave for work."
"Yeah, OK," he replied, like a disappointed child, "but put down the nightgown and let me look at my little girl." Joanne complied, feeling very cold inside. She felt that she had accidentally walked naked onto the stage of a peep show, and that dozens of strangers were grasping at her body.
"Turn around," he said, his voice beginning to sound excited. She felt nothing inside as she followed his instructions. "Getting a little heavy in the back there, aren't you?" Rob said as he patted her on the rump. Joanne remained frozen.
"Well, I'm off to work. Maybe by tonight, you'll be back to yourself," Rob said, as if everything which had happened in the past half-hour had not occurred.
After she heard the front door close, even though she had just showered, Joanne went back into the bathroom and turned on the hot water. She soaped herself until she had worn the soap bar down.
She dressed quickly in a business suit, picked up her appointment book and prepared to leave for her first appointment. As she walked down the stairs, the smell of coffee reminded her that she had not had breakfast and she had forgotten to turn off the coffee maker. No, she reminded herself, Rob forgot to turn off the coffee maker.
She checked her watch and saw there was time for a quick cup of coffee. She breathed the aroma of fresh brewed coffee and remembered how she and Rob used to love to sit in the kitchen in their first apartment and enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning. She always woke up a half-hour before he did and made his breakfast. Just like his mother did, she thought. She was so young then. She enjoyed being maternal toward Rob, and loved taking care of him in every way. Now that she had kids of her own, she realized that the difference between her kids and her husband was that the kids were growing up.
Joanne thought about her life, and had to admit it wasn't all that bad. Maybe if times were different, she thought, I would just keep my mouth shut and count my blessings. For a few moments, she thought about her parents' marriage, Dear dad was just like Rob. Mom took care of him all his life and never complained. Joanne thought about her mother, now alone and most of the time lost in her memories, though only fifty-five. Her dad was dead two years now. She remembered when she told him that she was going to marry Rob, he said, "Rob is a lucky boy to get someone like you to take care of him." She remembered how proud she felt that her father believed she was so capable.
What do I want? she asked herself.
The more that Joanne thought about her situation, the more confused she became. Everything she had learned as a child told her that her marriage was the way it was supposed to be. She was doing her duty, her husband was doing his. Yes, there was increasing tension between them, but they could work it out; they always did.
What's really bothering me? She couldn't come up with an answer. Joanne had always been sensible and never rushed into major decisions. This one was the most important in her life, and she wasn't about to pack a bag and leave for Reno, or wherever it is that people go to get quick divorces.
Joanne finished her coffee and washed the cup and saucer. She remembered to turn off the coffee machine and turn on the answering machine. Like my life, she thought, turn-offs and turn-ons. She gathered her jacket and briefcase and headed out to the car.
Rob had a terrible day. He couldn't stop worrying about Joanne's unexpected changes. He had always taken for granted that Joanne was managing his home, and therefore, gave little thought to his wife or children while he was at work. What is wrong with her? He was completely puzzled by her behavior. I know I didn't say anything to upset her. Just one more worry to add to my worry folder, he thought.
Rob never was very contemplative. He had always found that if he ignored a problem long enough, either someone else would take care of it or it would go away. He had a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach that something was different. Rob recalled the good times with Joanne, how she had always taken care of him the way she was supposed to. He never questioned his love for her, therefore decided that they would have to get this problem, whatever it was, straightened out. It's time to assert myself and get things back to normal. I'll talk to her right after dinner. He was glad that the kids were away at camp so they would have time to have a real talk.
Rob came home at his usual time - 5:45. As he walked in the door he became aware that there was something different. He couldn't smell dinner cooking or coffee brewing. On those few occasions when Joanne had been tied up at work, she called him at the office. For an instant, Rob panicked. "Joanne?" he called. The empty house echoed slightly. "Damn it! Where are you?" Rob laughed at his last remark, almost expecting an answer even though Joanne was not there.
All of Rob's plans to confront Joanne dissolved and his new worry was what to do for supper. To say that Rob was helpless in the kitchen was an understatement. "I'm hungry," he whined. Not knowing what else to do, Rob went into the living room and sat in his favorite chair to wait for Joanne. As minutes, then hours, passed, his worry became near-panic. He thought of all of the terrible things that could have befallen her. I couldn't manage a house and two children without her!
After her last appointment of the day, Joanne began her regular journey home. However, when she passed a little diner called THE COFFEE CUP, she turned her car into the parking lot. Funny, she thought, I never noticed this place before. Briefly, she considered calling Rob but decided not to.
She looked around the almost empty diner and felt as if she had stepped back in time to her childhood. The chrome trim and backless red stools at the counter allowed her to recall Sunday lunches after church with her father. She hadn't been in a place like this in over twenty years. Dad always ordered the same thing. It had become a family joke. After carefully considering the menu for about five minutes, dad would say, "I think I'll have the homemade meatloaf and the Idaho potatoes whipped with butter with the savory brown gravy." And, as if it were an afterthought, despite the fact that it came with the dinner, "And . . . I think I'll have an order of the fresh green beans." Dad always ordered word-for-word what was on the menu, even adding 'the' to the beginning of each item as if the waitress might not have served him if he changed a single word from the menu. I was always so embarrassed when dad did that. She wondered whether he might have asked for a glass of 'the' water had he been thirsty. She was always careful to order something different each Sunday and never preceded anything with 'the.' Joanne realized how much she missed Sunday dinners with her father. They had been a part of her life for as long as she could remember, but when she turned thirteen, they stopped. She couldn't recall exactly why they stopped, but she remembered that one Sunday her father simply said that maybe they should go straight home after church. She remembered feeling a sense of relief along with a vague sense of disappointment. During the last couple of years of their weekly ritual, Joanne recalled, her father had said barely a word to her.
Joanne remembered her father's affection toward her until she was about nine or ten. Joanne would always curl up in her father's lap and enjoy his musty odor. "You're getting too big for this kind of stuff, princess," her father said one day. "No I'm not, daddy. I'll always be your little girl." "Well, not so little anymore," he answered. Their relationship became increasingly distant after that day.
Joanne thought of her father as she remembered him toward the end of his life. He would be a voice from the wilderness, offering slightly off-base advice from another room. Joanne could recall just one more hug from her father. That was on her wedding day when he told her that her husband was a lucky boy. She thought for a moment that he was going to cry. That would have been a first; she never knew her father to show emotion. "Not manly," he would say, gruffly.
And mom, thought Joanne, now there's the invisible woman. Even though she still saw her mother at least once a week, she knew almost nothing about her. She could picture her only as my mother and dad's widow, with no real identity of her own. She was as invisible as a servant in her own home. Joanne jolted. Damn, that's me! she thought. She was the kids' mother, Rob's wife, a saleswoman, a homemaker, but who the hell was Joanne?
"Cup of fresh brewed coffee?" The voice brought her back to the present.
That's my line, she thought, grinning.
"I say somethin' funny?" the waitress asked, looking worried.
"Oh, no! It's just that I say something like that to my husband every morning. You know, `Wake up and smell the coffee!'" Tears began running down Joanne's face. She quickly wiped her eyes and nose. "Sentimental me," she muttered. "Yes, think I will have a cup of 'the' fresh brewed coffee," she smiled as she remembered her father and felt pleasure from this small remembrance.
When the waitress brought her coffee to the table, Joanne breathed in its aroma. "Smells good, Mm, tastes great! Maybe I could do commercials for you." She and the waitress laughed.
Joanne's thoughts turned to Rob's comment about the coffee that morning. It isn't only the coffee. Lately, everything about our marriage reeks of sameness,the same meals, same conversation, even sex on the same night of the week.
Joanne looked at her feelings from a fresh perspective. It's over, she said to herself. She found herself momentarily overwhelmed by fear. When Joanne thought about what she had wanted in a marriage, she had to admit that for the most part, she got what she had bargained for. She began to realize that she had changed and Rob hadn't. No, that's not fair. He changed, too, just not into what she wanted him to be.
Joanne ordered a second and then a third cup of coffee. She ordered meatloaf, whipped potatoes, and green beans. She smiled as she ordered, intentionally omitting any reference to 'the' or 'savory.' She enjoyed the meal immensely. At the same time, she gained a greater appreciation of her dad. Maybe there's something to be said for repetition. She thought about her morning ritual with Rob, "Wake up and smell the coffee!"
"Will there be anything else?" The waitress looked at Joanne and waited.
"No . . . yes, as a matter of fact there will be. I'd like something sinfully sweet. This is a special occasion. I'm celebrating my thirteenth birthday! How's about . . . can you make me a sundae with everything on it? You know, nuts, goo, fruits - the works!" The waitress looked at her, shook her head and shuffled off to the kitchen. She emerged a few minutes later with a dish piled high with every imaginable sweet and a long spoon.
"Don't mind me," laughed Joanne, "I'm just cheating and it feels great!"
"Yeah, honey," smiled the waitress. "I know just how you feel. Beats pickin' up a man and it won't getcha pregnant."
By the time Joanne finished the sinful sweet and another cup of coffee, she felt stuffed. She had a whipped cream and chocolate stain on the front of her blouse and felt like a kid who had just raided the refrigerator, and the freezer. When she looked at her watch and realized that it was almost 9:00 P.M. Joanne panicked for a moment.
What about Rob's supper, she thought. He can certainly find some way to take care of himself for one meal. He's thirty-five years old!
But he's used to having me do everything for him.
Well, now, that's going to have to change, isn't it?
Joanne left a five dollar tip for the waitress and felt both guilty and opulent. Now that was the best dinner I've had in a long time. She loosened her belt and let out a sigh of satisfaction as she got into her car.
Joanne looked at her watch as she approached her front door. It was nearly nine-thirty. She had never stayed out this late without calling. She remembered the few occasions when she had stayed out beyond her curfew as a teen. The inquisition board consisting of mom, dad, and gram, before gram died when Joanne was eighteen. They'd sit in the living room waiting, no conversation, no expression that she could read. Joanne was certain that they knew the minute she walked in the door exactly what she had been doing. She remembered the first time she had allowed a boy to touch her breast, she believed they could all see the mark of his hand right through her clothes. They didn't say anything, but they knew, of that she was certain. When she got to her room she examined herself carefully in the mirror. She saw nothing out of the ordinary, but they knew.
Then she thought, come to think of it, they never accused her of anything. They just sat there and it was enough to keep her from getting into real trouble.
Joanne reminisced about the first time she and Rob had attempted to have sex. It was after her Junior Prom and every girl in her class bragged about how her romantic evening was going to end. She and Rob planned their first sexual experience for weeks before the prom, both feeling that it was a proper move in their relationship. Although Rob had bragged about his numerous conquests, Joanne sensed that he had no better idea what to do than she did. Rob was nineteen, so Joanne thought it best to allow him to keep up his facade. She knew how sensitive Rob was and she knew he needed his man about town image. They had been going together for about a year and knew that someday they were going to be married, so by the standards of their generation, the liberated seventies, sex was OK. They went to a disreputable motel on the outskirts of the city, a place, she saw as having no purpose other than sexual liaisons. She recalled the absolute pain and mortification Rob felt when he ejaculated as he was putting on a condom. It was one of the few times she could recall seeing Rob cry. She just held him and reassured him that it was only their nervousness because it was her first time. Afterward, Joanne was relieved that she was still a virgin - at least she thought she was. She wasn't certain if intent counted. The church told her it did. In any case, when she got home and had to pass the inquisition board, she was red as a beet. She could feel the heat of her embarrassment from her hair to soles of her feet.
Later that night, Joanne's mother came into her room and asked, "Did you have fun with Rob at the prom?" It was then that she knew that her family had no idea what went on in her life and really didn't want to know. They preferred the illusions of their own needs to reality. The next weekend, Joanne and Rob had their first successful experience with sex. Joanne had to admit that it really wasn't anything to get excited about. For her, it still wasn't. At least, not most of the time.
As Joanne entered the foyer, she realized she had been standing on the front step for fifteen minutes. "What a strange day," she said.
"What's that?" said Rob, waking from a restless sleep on the living room chair.
"I'm home." Joanne paused. She felt almost the way she did that first night they tried to have sex. She didn't know what to say or do next. Apparently, neither did Rob. Joanne stood and Rob sat, immobile and indecisive.
"I'm hungry," Rob said plaintively, breaking the tension growing between them.
"You're hungry," Joanne responded , more a statement of fact than a question. "I'm hungry, too, Rob."
"Well, why don't you make dinner, and we'll eat, OK?" Rob looked at Joanne expectantly.
"I already ate," Joanne snapped, impatiently.
"But I thought . . ."
"Rob, I just can't go on like this. We talk but we don't communicate." Joanne paused and waited for Rob to respond, but he sat, silent, and simply looked confused. "Let me try again. Rob, I'm just not happy."
Joanne had as little experience with real communication as Rob and knew that she wasn't getting through to him. I have to try, she told herself. I owe that much to both of us.
"Let me fix you something to eat. We'll talk after. OK?" Joanne threw her coat over the couch and went into the kitchen and began searching for ingredients to make dinner for her husband.
He really needs me.
No, he really needs a mommy to take care of him.
And whose fault is that? She stood, shocked by this new revelation.
Joanne thought about Rob's life. How he had worked hard and made a good career without formal education. And, with no help or guidance from anyone. At the same time, he was helpless as a baby at home. He couldn't butter toast, or pick up after himself, or . . . She stopped in the middle of her thought and wondered if it was too late for him. Or, for her.
Joanne had taken care of Rob all of their years together. I took over right where his mother left off. She thought about her own mother, now a lost soul because she didn't have anybody to take care of.
The smell of bacon and eggs brought Joanne out of her reverie. She hadn't recalled making this meal, but it struck her that it was the same meal she had begun preparing for breakfast. The coffee smells great, too. She buttered the fresh, warm toast, and called into the living room; "Hey, Rob, wake up and smell the coffee!"
Rob came into the room cautiously, as if any move on his part would trigger off another explosion. He looked at the meal sitting at his place waiting for him. Joanne poured him a cup of coffee and put two spoons of sugar into it and stirred it gently. "This is more like it," Rob exclaimed, forgetting the problems of the day.
Joanne sat quietly while Rob consumed his meal. She chewed absentmindedly on a piece of bacon although she certainly wasn't hungry.
"That was really good for a change," Rob said as he wiped his mouth with his napkin. Without thinking, Joanne began gathering his dishes and putting them in the dishwasher.
When Joanne turned back to the table, Rob was gone. Joanne heard his footsteps climbing the stairs. She finished filling the dishwasher, turned it on, and followed Rob upstairs.
"Hey, it's nice to see you up here early for a change. Wanna play?" Rob looked at Joanne expectantly. Often in the past their arguments ended with a romp in bed. Rob looked forward to making up after arguments. Joanne was at her most passionate then.
"Rob, we have to talk." Joanne sat on the edge of the bed and watched Rob as he undressed.
"Let's talk after, babe. OK?"
"No, Rob this is too important." Rob stood there, a comic figure with his pants around his ankles and his broadening belly sticking out over his shorts. Joanne looked at him and smiled. "Finish changing and we'll talk."
Rob removed the rest of his clothes and lay on his back on the bed. Joanne continued to sit in her business suit. Rob felt silly and vulnerable but was unable to move. "Joanne, get undressed and just lay with me. We'll talk - like we used to when we were kids." Joanne just looked at him and made no move. "Joanne, I love you. I don't know what's happening and I'm scared." Rob began sobbing.
"Rob! I haven't seen you cry since that time . . ."
"Yeah, since the night of your Junior Prom. I was such a big man with the ladies that I couldn't get past putting on a rubber! I was so scared that you'd know I was a . . ."
"Rob, I knew. And I thought it was so cute how you had to pretend." Joanne began crying too. "You know, this is the first time you ever really came out and told me."
Joanne began undressing. She carefully hung her suit in the closet and put her blouse and underwear in the hamper. She began reaching for Rob's things, scattered on the floor and the chair as usual, but stopped herself. She sat cross-legged on the bed facing Rob. He stared at her, fearful of what was coming next.
"I'm not very good at this," Joanne began. "I've been thinking all day how to say this. Things just aren't right. And they have to change. I feel like . . . well like a servant around here. I don't get the feeling that you really care about me. As long as I do what you need done around here, everything is OK. I cook and clean and take care of the kids, and work full-time too. And all I hear from you is how fat I'm getting or how lousy my cooking is. Maybe I just need a little recognition or appreciation from you. When the kids are around, it isn't as noticeable because I expect to have to clean up after them and cook for them because they're kids.
"And I'm not doing my part? Is that it? I mean, I work like a dog and see those snot-nosed college kids get the promotions while I do most of the work. What do you want from me? And if you think you're such a pleasure to live with. try being Ms. Perfect's husband sometime." Rob was surprised by his outburst. Joanne looked shocked.
"What do you mean, Ms. Perfect?" Joanne answered when she had a moment to absorb what Rob had said. This certainly didn't fit her image of herself.
"You know," said Rob, "everything you do is right and I sometimes feel like a helpless kid around you."
Rob lay still, covering his face with his hands. Neither Rob nor Joanne was used to communicating with the other. Back when they were teens, and best friends, they talked about everything, but after they married, they learned to live together with a minimum of real communication. Rob thought about how they could talk for hours, especially when they lay together in bed. He remembered back to the time early in their relationship when all they did was talk and hold each other. I told Joanne I would wait forever for her, Rob thought, and sometimes I feel like I'm still waiting.
"I never knew you felt like that," Joanne said. "Why didn't you ever say something? How could I know?"
"When?" asked Rob, anger creeping into his voice. "You were always doing something every minute. If you weren't taking care of the kids, or the house, or cooking, it was working or reading or something."
"And maybe I should have just been there at your beck and call, Prince Charming?" Joanne retorted, her own anger beginning to rise. "If I didn't cook and clean and take care of the kids, who would have? You?"
"Well, I didn't know how - at least not good enough to please you. Remember, I used to get up and make breakfast, but you would always complain that the coffee was too strong or the eggs weren't the way you liked them." Rob looked at Joanne and was surprised to see that she was really paying attention to him instead of moving around the room doing fifty different things.
Joanne smiled. "You know Rob, I came home all ready to give you a laundry list of all of my complaints, and you have a list as long as mine. Why did we stop talking to each other?" She reached out and placed her hand on his stomach.
"And we never . . . touch anymore," Rob added, figuring that if he was going to get out his complaints, he might as well go for all of them!
"Yeah," said Joanne, "that's on my list, too. How can you expect me to be close to you and make love to you when all you do is criticize me and tell me I'm getting old or fat. I mean . . ."
"Joanne, you know I think you're the prettiest girl in the world. I always did and always will." Rob reached out and pulled Joanne down next to him and she didn't resist.
"Well, lately, you've had a funny way of showing it. Telling me my ass is fat and I'm not as young as I used to be. How can you expect me to feel good about myself - or about you, if you do things like that all the time? And, I never criticize you that way."
But you could," Rob answered, tentatively.
Joanne looked at Rob and understood. He wasn't criticizing her. He was really criticizing himself. She remembered how proud he used to be of his body, and looking at him now she realized that time had taken more of a toll on Rob than on her. Funny that she had never really noticed the changes in him. Maybe I never looked at him as a person before. He was a boyfriend, a husband, a father, but never Rob.
"I don't want to lose my marriage," said Rob, suddenly and earnestly. "All day today I thought that you were going to tell me it was over, especially when you didn't come home after work."
Joanne leaned over him and studied his face carefully. "Rob, it crossed my mind. And not just today. I asked myself what was marriage for. The kids are growing, we have our jobs, we have a house. Is that all it is? And I decided that if that was all there was, I want out."
Rob remained silent a moment and then said, "I agree. I never knew why I was so angry all the time. I always looked for someone to blame it on, and you were the only one there. I don't want to live like this anymore either."
Both remained silent. Then, as couples who have known each other for a long time often do, both blurted out, "What now?" This set them both into a burst of laughter.
"Well," they said in unison, "we can give up, or we can work it out." They hugged each other and began playfully touching in ways which they hadn't done since . . . well since before they were married.
"Maybe we can start working on what we have right here and right now," Rob said.
"That hasn't been so great lately, either. Maybe we have to, um, communicate?" Joanne began tracing patterns on Rob's chest with her finger. "Rob, tell me what you like?"
"We never asked each other that before. Not in bed, and not anywhere else, either." Rob felt the anger drifting out of him. With suddenness, it became comforting to Rob to know that at least for tomorrow, Joanne's pantyhose would be hanging over the shower door. What would I do if they weren't there? he thought.
"Just tell me what to do," Rob said. "I really want to know."
"That and that and . . ." Joanne said.
Much later, Rob and Joanne fell asleep in each other's arms. The last thing Joanne remembered was Rob saying something about talking like this more often and she answering that it was all she ever really wanted.
"Honey, wake up and smell the coffee!" Joanne rolled over luxuriously, smelled the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee, noticed the bright sunlight streaming through the bedroom curtains and then bolted upright in bed. That's my line, she thought. Maybe life's a bore only when you allow it to be.