Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On Constructing the Short Story: Fiction (Part Four)

On Constructing the Short Story: Fiction (Part Four)

I am often asked “How do I get started on something if I have ‘writer’s block?’” Well, we’ve all been there, of course, but one of the “assignments” I will give my “students” in a creative writing workshop is a story that I begin by giving them the circumstances and then telling them to finish the story they are already writing in their heads. Everyone who tries this comes back with a different story, and that’s just perfect in my mind, because we all have different stories to tell.

Here is the start of the story, which is, incidentally, a TRUE STORY the ending of which is unknown, at least to me.

One wet fall night -- it had been raining on and off -- my wife, Joanie called from Union Station. She had just gotten off of the Metroliner from New York and was getting onto the subway. She asked if I could pick her up at Friendship Heights. I said sure, and fifteen minutes later, jumped into my car and drove the four blocks over to the Metro.

I parked on the Wisconsin Avenue side of the Metro office building there; Joanie always went down this escalator when I dropped her off and this was where I always picked her up. A bus pulled in behind me, so I vacated the bus lane and drove around the pie-wedge shaped building, turning right onto what is officially "Wisconsin Circle" even though it never described more that one sixth or one fifth of a pie. Then I turned right on Western Avenue and right again on Wisconsin just as the bus was leaving. All this time I was monitoring the escalator for Joanie's arrival.

A car pulled in behind me. I could see the silhouettes of a man behind the wheel and a woman on the passenger side of the front seat talking. The rear window of their car glowed with the headlights of traffic on Wisconsin. Then a hesitant peck, peck, and she got out of the vehicle, waved sadly, and went down the escalator with her hand luggage. Behind me I saw the driver's shoulders heave -- I imagine he sighed at this painful parting. Then he pulled out, drove past me, turned, and was gone.

I turned my attention to the escalator, since it was clear that Joanie must have missed the subway train by calling me, and had to wait another twenty minutes for the next one. But I wanted to jump out of the car and greet her and load her luggage in the car (if she had any -- I can't remember)

A few minutes passed. Then the woman who had gotten out of the car behind me re-emerged from the subway, creeping up the stairs rather than the escalator. She peered around, wondering, I suppose, if the driver had merely moved the car. She came completely out of the subway, looked up and down Wisconsin Avenue, turned, walked toward the intersection, crossed Wisconsin with the light, then crossed Western with the light, and turned right, walking down Western Avenue beside Mazza Gallerie until she was gone from my sight.

Then Joanie appeared, and I said, "You're not going to believe this."

Your assignment, then, is to finish the story about the woman who went down into the subway and reappeared. Where was she going and why? Who was the man in the car? Why the subterfuge? But you're already writing it in your head, I can tell.

So what are you waiting for? Get to work! And don’t stop writing until you’ve gotten to the end. Be open to any surprises you might encounter along the way, and don’t self-edit as you go along. Whatever comes to you comes to YOU and should be included, not dismissed. ONLY once you are done, may you put it down and stop. Then, in the cold light of the next day or so, print it out and reread what you have written. Correct only your grammar, spelling, and syntax, and do NOT tamper with your characters’ speech, especially so if you worry what people will think.

Once you’ve given yourself permission to free-associate in the creative process, you may come to understand that all you need do is find one thing to start writing about in order to open the floodgates.

In fact, if your stories are good enough, we might run the best of them in The Broadkill Review to demonstrate that what I’ve said about the uniqueness of your voices is true.

(from The Broadkill Review, Vol. 1, No. 4 July 2007)

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