I figured out what I am trying to do with the working reviews. It’s not really about the books that I’m reviewing. That’s mostly just an afterthought and a nod to where I got a particular exercise. What I am trying to do is teach (despite always swearing up and down that I would never be a teacher). I want to teach myself to write better, to think outside my own little box, to be able to put myself into any story idea and make it work for me. I want to teach other people what has worked for me and what might help them too. So I’m going to start branching out a bit.
This week, there is no book. There are, I suppose, many books, because my exercise is a popular one for many people who teach writing one way or another. This is the “a picture’s worth a thousand words” class of exercise. Use a family photo. A wedding picture. A magazine ad. The portrait from the obituary of a stranger. Whatever. Something. Write about it in some way. First person. Third person. Memoir. Wild speculation.
I have a guest appearance this week as well. Angie Wang has been producing artwork of staggering beauty for as long as I have known her, which started back when we were thirteen and spotty together. She has kindly agreed to donate an organ from her body of work to the noble cause of, well, me. No wedding pictures or shoddy advertisements for me, no sir; I get the good stuff.
And since I must have rules and they should be as irritatingly specific as possible, let’s say this: one thousand words, evenly divided between past and present in alternating sentences. Two scenes in two times, interwoven.
I do not attend the party in the gym after graduation; she might be there and I can finally no longer bear the sight of her. They did the gym up in black and gold, school colors, and laid the mats down over the hardwood court. On the lawn, a table draped in white is now bereft of rolled diplomas, handed out one by one to students who drifted down like two rows of ghosts.
I stood by the buffet and tried to tell my daughter about the year we won the state volleyball tournament, immortalized by numbers in gold against a banner of black felt on the opposite wall. I steal a kiss in the girl’s bathroom, after everyone else finishes putting on robes and fixing hair and makeup, but she just smiles at me, her hopeful fool. My daughter finished her cookie and asked, three times in maddening succession, when it would be time to leave. Driving to graduation, I imagine rolling up the familiar places — the arcade, the ice cream parlor, the football stadium — and tying them with a bow like a diploma, so I can take them away with me. She walked in, laughing with someone who had once been a boy who took embarrassing photographs for the school newspaper, and her ponytail swung to the beat of her dance like she was still fourteen.
She says, it’s over goodbye, like a movie star, complete with poetic one-liner sent over her departing shoulder, and in the parking lot of Robinsons-May where we bought graduation dresses, I lean against my hatchback and watch the sun go down for hours. I looked away as soon as we made eye contact and fussed with my daughter’s hair bow until she whined and squirmed away; then there is nothing to do but look at the still-familiar body and compare its steadfast curves with my own breasts and hips, soft from pregnancy and nursing. We keep up nonstop chatter — who would wear that, is green really my color, dad will kill me when he sees the bill, let’s get dinner at Tommy’s — as we shop because if we stop to catch our breath, the specter of graduation and college and life will say something terrible through our mouths. Some party, she said then put a hand on my shoulder and offered to get me a drink; I cannot think of a single thing to say.
The buzz from prom has faded and graduation is the new excuse to talk about shopping, the sacred unifier of high school girls, so the hum of voices rises to a klaxon in the hallways. She picked a table at the center of the room, where the noise of voices half-recognized swirled around us and made it impossible to understand what anyone more than a foot away said. We both go to prom without dates; we slip out to the hotel parking lot and dance together, the music inside a faint thrum. She put a plate of sweets in front of my daughter with a smile then turned us both away from her as easily and confidently as from a coat which has been safely returned to its hanger in the closet. She applies to a big name school as a political science major; I will go straight into nursing at a trade school, so I spend late nights bundled in her bed while she writes essays. She pulled her chair close to mine until, leaning in to hear her, I could smell hotel shampoo and, when I mentioned it, she told me she had flown in last night from D.C.
In junior year, we look into colleges and we go on tours together, just us, and make up outrageous personal stories to tell the tour guides. I checked over my shoulder, waiting for someone to accuse us of something true, but no one pays attention to lesbians these days and we talked in peace. I am in love, so I say, let’s go away together, and she is not cruel, so she says, yes, like she means it. We talk about our jobs (RN; lobbyist), our marriages (husband on business in China this week; no husband, but a dog), and what we’ve been doing the past twenty-five years (finger-painting with preschoolers; knitting on transcontinental flights).
We stop going out with boys and start going out with each other somewhere in sophomore year, but we have been fooling around in our little girl bedrooms, surrounded by stuffed toys and lace curtains, for months before this. She touched my breast over the ribbon flower on my sweater and said, casually, how nice it is, and fingered the petals for a moment too long. People start talking about us before I know that something is happening between us; we stand too close together and touch, finger tip to finger tip, too often. I tried to get up the courage to ask her if she was (still sleeping with girls) seeing anyone, but I was afraid she would say yes and I would have to wonder what her new lover was like and if she had ever called out my name when they made love. I only know about lesbians as a half idea, something hinted at in schoolyard conversations, until we watch The Empire Strikes Back and she explains just how she feels about Leia in her metal bikini.
A young man tried to interview us for the alumni newsletter, but she still knew how to tell a person to piss off without even offending them and she never took her eyes off me while she waited for him to give up. We meet in freshman English, playing icebreaker games, and the boy in our group flirts with her (pretty to my plain) with awkward persistence but she never notices; she is looking at me. When we leave, she watches from the front steps and my daughter waves for me from the back seat.
I had intended to run two scenes, neat, tidy scenes for past and present. But the past would not lie down and behave itself, so I ended up with a whole history of things. I’m mostly happy with that. But I did find that, in demanding strictly alternating sentences, I had to make some grammatical monstrosities. I had so much I wanted to say about each moment and my efforts to condense were only mildly successful. So when you read a sentence that contains almost as much punctuation as it does words, know that I am suitably contrite.
I’ve always wanted to do a reverse narrative, as I did for the past portion of this, since I read Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. It’s a play that follows an affair backwards from the awkward, post-break-up reunion to the first infidelity. It made me really stop and think about the progression of a relationship when I had to construct it in reverse. I went into the exercise with no plot idea, so I did not know how they had met or anything. I only knew that it ended. Finding the beginning inside the ending was interesting.
In writing, I separated the two time lines by way of formatting. But when I read the finished product, I found alternating lines of plain and italicized text so daunting to read, I dropped all the formatting and let it just sit there. When I read it that way, I found that some of the paragraph breaks I had felt confident about no longer worked. I have issues with paragraph breaks, in the sense that I tend to make them every other line. Or not at all. So I put careful thought into getting them right when I notice them. Some lines seemed so well matched that I could not break them up. Others seemed to need a bridge between them that I could not find. Paragraph breaks mostly served as a replacement, a breath taken between ideas that don’t quite follow.
Writing from a picture was less restrictive than I anticipated. The wedding picture type prompts I have read always seemed to preclude any creativity except word choice. The story was there, just waiting. I don’t like that. I want a story to put up a little bit of a fight, make me work for it, instead of just lying there and waiting to be transcribed. No doubt, in a few years, I will crave an easy catch. With this, I felt the underlying story, something about secret relationships and resentment and losing touch with the idealism of our youth. But I had to track it, one sentence at a time.
I found the picture helpful because whenever I was unsure of what to do next, I noticed some detail in the picture that I had not seen before, which illuminated the characters in some way. The uncomfortable curl of her fingers. The friendly posture paired with indirect gazes. Long and short hair on women who are the same age.
I would have to try the exercise again to see if my impressions hold true with other types of pictures, or if they were particular to the portrait style of this piece. But I found that action fell by the wayside because I was so wrapped up in the characters. They did not feel active in the story. Yet they were not passive either. They did things, now and in the past. So I wonder if this is a quiet sort of story and I’m just not familiar with that sensation. Subtlety, perhaps? Not really my modus operandi.
In the end, I am charmed by some moments in the story, but largely dissatisfied with it. It feels clunky. If I were to go back to it, I would abandon the alternating sentence rule and let myself put small chunks of sentences together. I would do something with the college portions of the story, which seem forced. And I would slow down the ending. I think the greatest use of the exercise was that it made me tune in to the subtleties of conveying emotion, the gestures and expressions that mean more than five hours of dialogue.
A huge thank-you to Angie for her help on this edition of Working Review. I can only hope that my contribution does justice to her work. Please visit her website for more of her lovely illustrations and comics.