Friday, September 5, 2008


The other day in Intro to Fiction Writing we were talking about sensory strokes, and we read a short-short called "Breakfast" by John Steinbeck. My students appreciate shorts from the Norton anthology Flash Fiction, but I think "Breakfast" works really well as a sensory scavenger hunt (the story appeals to all five senses). We also read the Chekhov letter about writing description and tried our own hand at a Checkovian sentence.

"I think descriptions of nature should be very short and always be à propos. Commonplaces like "The setting sun, sinking into the waves of the darkening sea, cast its purple gold rays, etc," "Swallows, flitting over the surface of the water, twittered gaily" — eliminate such commonplaces. You have to choose small details in describing nature, grouping them in such a way that if you close your eyes after reading it you can picture the whole thing. For example, you'll get a picture of a moonlit night if you write that on the dam of the mill a piece of broken bottle flashed like a bright star and the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled by like a ball, etc. ... In the realm of psychology you also need details. God preserve you from commonplaces. Best of all, shun all descriptions of the characters' spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge clearly from their actions. Don't try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she."

I handed out a poetry starter (purchased through Teachers Discovery... it is an often vivid, often strange picture designed to act as a creative springboard) and urged my students to write a flash piece that attempts to do the following:

Preface- don't simply describe the picture.

1) Attempt at least one sentence of Chekhovian description.

2) Create at least one character (Chekhov suggests a he and a she; in the case of an openly gay student... I have one... a he and a he is okay too).

3) Try to create some element of suspense.

Today we workshopped the stories. I asked them to type them out if they liked what they wrote and bring them in... about half of them typed their story. We had a really great mini-workshop, and I attempted to define the three types of common workshop comments. There's the Paula-sickeningly sweet and uplifting (never a bad thing), the Randy must start with "Yo dawg," and must be honest in an I-still-want-to-be -your-friend kind of way, and the Simon, which is always brutally honest, and sometimes mean (your attempt at dialogue is really laughable... you make Lovecraft look like Elmore Leonard). By the end of it, the kids who hadn't typed their story were jealous of the ones who had, and we had a really great spontaneous workshop.

I had written with them in class, as I often do, and I was surprised how much I liked what came out. I have many binders full of junk from these experiments, but I really liked this one, so I typed it and threw it into the Xeroxed manuscripts and let them workshop mine, too. It was a lot of fun.

Here's what came out of me-

“My Heart is More Like Guernica”

The light saturated the stage from overhead and rimmed the brass horn blue while deepening the dark skin of the man holding it to indigo— the kind they don’t sell any more at the campus art supply. It was as if some divine brush or pen was filling in the open spaces with chiaroscuro melodies—melodies as rich as the oils in my art box, or as rare as those of Renaissance paintings. No, I think Picasso’s Three Musicians, but tonight my heart is more like Guernica. She has not seen me yet and she was wrapped in a kind of blissed-out blues trance that I knew well— the melody had wrapped its strong arms around me on many nights, yet I seemed immune to its seduction on this, the same night I hoped to dance with her. I leaned my artist’s portfolio against the chair I had been sitting in and made my way through the crowd toward the stage. I don’t know why I dragged along my portfolio, perhaps as some unlikely shield behind which I hoped to avoid what I know now must be done, to avoid her glance, so much like a siren’s song. How many times had I attempted to capture her features with a pen or brush? No matter, the past has dried on the palate, and I have this one chance. I step onto the stage and she sees me—we are here, this is now.

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