Ah! It just turned to spring, didn’t it? (March 21st) Does it feel like spring where you are? Thinking of my writing colleagues across the country and across the world, I’m sitting at my desk imagining what spring is like for them in Phoenix, Los Angeles, New Jersey, India, Australia, Tanzania, and Cambridge, England. And even though the calendar says it’s spring, this week we had snow. Big sloppy snow flake packets dropping from the sky to the ground, not sticking, but still – present. This morning the sun is out, there are sounds of birds in the budded or blooming trees outside, and the grass shimmers green, almost vibrating in the early-spring light. That kind of light makes you feel like you can do almost anything. Doesn’t it?
Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit
Don’t bother the earth spirit who lives here. She is working on a story. It is the oldest story in the world and it is delicate, changing. If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread, and you will be obligated to stay and listen. But this is no ordinary story. You will have to endure earthquakes, lightning, the deaths of all those you love, the most blinding beauty. It’s a story so compelling you may never want to leave; this is how she traps you. See that stone finger over there? That is the only one who ever escaped.
I love that in this poem Harjo shakes up the “typical” poem form. She doesn’t use line breaks, she talks to the reader conversationally, but at the same time, the poem goes into compelling and dramatic places. “If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread, and you will be obligated to stay and listen.” And then: “You will have to endure earthquakes, lightning, the deaths of all those you love, the most blinding beauty. It’s a story so compelling you may never want to leave; this is how she traps you.” What is it that makes us want both the comfort of warm bread and the stunning sight of blinding beauty? It is interesting that we, as humans, endure deaths of loved ones AND earthquakes AND beauty. What do you think?
Here is a 101-word story from my “Eleven Stories” writing course!
Marley & Marley, by Theresa Barker
The twins named the gerbils the same name: Marley. They saw that movie “Marley” a few years back with the silly yellow labrador retriever named Marley. They’d fallen in love with the dog in the movie, goofy as he was, and that’s where the name came from. These were only two small hamsters, but they were golden and they did race around the cage, much as Marley the dog had raced around in that movie. Their father and I objected to the same-name strategy, protesting, – how would we tell them apart? But the twins were set on it, so the names stuck. We had no problem telling them apart a few months later when one of the Marleys had a litter of pups. Plenty of Marleys now.
– The twins and their hamsters will be very happy. The parents? Not so much, perhaps!
Ah, I see in my notes from this story that I wrote this for a different purpose. For this story I opened a book of short stories and I picked several titles that jumped out at me, then I wrote my own (brief) story for each title. This title was from “Marley and Marley” by J. R. Dawson and it appears in the November/December edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Do you ever try writing from “found words” or sayings that you encounter?
Have you ever fallen in love with someone else’s writing, but you’re not sure how to study their work or learn from it? You might give this a try: pick a story you enjoy or admire, and then rewrite the story from the point of view of a different narrator. It might be another person in the story, it might even be an inanimate object or an animal. In this way, you can study the author’s writing – where does this narrator come into the story? What is important to this narrator vs. the original narrator? What insights does the new narrator provide, what secrets does it have? – And as you pore over the original story, picking up clues to your new narrator’s story, the rhythm and the lilt of the author’s original writing can become a part of your thinking, which helps you work new techniques into your own writing.
Let’s take an example, Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”. Here is an excerpt from the opening:
. . . The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.
“What should we drink?” the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.
“It’s pretty hot,” the man said.
Suppose we wrote a new section from the woman’s point of view. It might go something like this:
We sat at the little table outside in the shade, though it was too hot even then. He always wanted to be outdoors. It was like he was watching for something, some sign. He didn’t say anything, like usual. I put my hat on the table. I said, trying to be nice, “What should we drink?”
He said, “It’s pretty hot.” He was looking at the white hills across the valley.
Granted, this may not be brilliant text. But it gives you the idea; we are in the viewpoint of the woman, and as narrator she’s telling us she’s irritated with him, she’s tired but trying to get along. He seems to be ignoring her, “as usual.” We’re hearing what’s important to the woman, what she does not tell the man, how she’s feeling in the heat and isolation of the train station.
As an exercise, let’s try narrating from an object’s point of view. Maybe the white hills?
Down along the valley, in the small adobe train station, the man and woman sat outdoors at a table. The white hills along the valley of the Ebro had seen eons of human and non-human history. The station and the train had only come into the valley recently, in a blip of time. But the hills watched everything: sky, valley, train station, people. There was some interest in the goings-on of humans.
Even though this seems unpromising – what could enormous hills have to do with the story of a man and woman waiting for a train? – the exercise could take you into a different frame for your writing. For instance, the hills could be angry toward the intrusion of humans, the scratching of earth and the disruption of the natural system. Or they might be philosophical that humans are nothing compared to the long timeline of the hills and valley. Because the narration of an object (or in this case, landscape) is so unusual, it may lead you into a poetic or lyrical approach that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.
Next time you run across an intriguing story or piece of literature, stop and think: what would happen if I rewrote this story using another narrator? Even if you only write a couple of pages in the new narrator’s voice, having studied the original story and attempted your own version will lead you into new writing and new voices. Try it!