Thursday, March 23, 2006
What They Think
Last week, I submitted my short story for critique. I sat down on the Sunday night prior and remained on my sofa, laptop teetering on my crossed legs, pecking away until I had something written. A few days before it was due, I enlisted Allison for an is-this-coherent read through. Prior to sending it off, I gave her a quick summary.
“I want to note that I’m concerned this is a little dark. I think I have a nice sense of humor and can relay it well in an essay format but once I step into the world of fiction, I get very serious.”
“Okay….. What’s it about?”
“A girl going home for her dad’s funeral.”
“That’s not necessarily dark.”
“And her mom’s been institutionalized.”
“Strike that. It’s dark. Like pitch black dark.”
Whether fiction or non-fiction, the success of a story rests on the presence of believable conflict. Yes, character development and the ability to interestingly weave words together are also important. If all you write is a description of something without a blip of excitement, you’ve got nothing. The still water of a lake is pretty but the white capped waves of the ocean crashing upon a never ending shore? That’s a mesmerizing vision you can’t turn away from.
When it comes to writing, I’ve always struggled to pair conflict with humor. It’s rather ironic seeing I’ve lived with a sick father for almost 25 years and my family spends more time laughing about my dad’s handicap than we spend sulking about it. He’ll do figure eights with his motorized vehicle, pretending it has a short circuit. We refer to the MS support group he leads as the Crips. And we jokingly rate cars on a cane rating, best of four, according to how handicap friendly they are. Fabric interior, more consistent with Velcro, automatically knocks any vehicle down to 2 canes. I know it all sounds offensive but when the option is to laugh or cry, you do everything in your power to keep the laughter coming.
Allison read my story and shot it back with some suggestions. All in all, she thought it was great. That’s a direct quote. I would have been ecstatic about a “good” review but “great” set me dancing on the sofa. I clicked send and forwarded my story off to the rest of the students.
When I got to class on Thursday evening, I settled in and braced myself. Quick math meant I was about to embark on sixty minutes of non-stop commentary. Breathe, Paige. You can do this. Shit, you survived an overly critical mother all these years. What’s one hour and ten strangers?
“Let’s start with Paige,” the instructor said. Oh fuck. I'm first?
Every critique is introduced with the teacher’s comments. This time around, he had so much to say. My pen swirled across the pad jotting notes. Gretchen, the step-mother, needed to be developed more so the reader could either agree or disagree with the primary character’s hate. The scene at the institution worked but did it work to further the story? Why did Aunt Peggy willingly assume the role of substitute mother? It was a marathon of constructive criticism and I was only one critic in.
I felt a little shell shocked throughout the process. After thirty minutes, listening to the discussion about my characters, my mind wandered. I started to question what my classmates really thought of me. Are Paige’s parents divorced? Is her mom a lunatic too? Did her dad die recently? They say you should write what you know and I don’t know anything about those life experiences. My parents are married, my mom is crazy but no more than the average Jewish mother and my dad’s alive and kicking albeit with a walker.
I wrapped up my momentary mental escape wondering if I was depressed. I mean, would a happy person really pick death and madness as the premise for a short story? Then again, would a mentally balanced person write about killing aliens in the shower or going to the other side the way some of my classmates have?
“Paige, now it’s your turn to ask questions,” the instructor said, yanking me back to Room 216 of Williams Hall.
There was so much just thrown my way that I had little to ask. I wasn’t devastated but instead overwhelmed. The piece was apparently worth improving and I had no idea where to start. These people, my audience provided me with some amazing suggestions and good reason to integrate them. I really valued what they had to say. Well, except for the nut who wanted to know exactly at what point the father divorced the institutionalized mother. I kid you not, she went on to ask how a crazy person could be competent and coherent enough to sign divorce papers. Even the teacher rolled his eyes at that one.
The last comment of my critique came from the instructor who said he’d really love to help me one on one as I work on my edits. He never once before extended himself to a student beyond the confines of class time. Either he believes I have a talent or he wants to get into my pants. I’m seriously hoping it’s talent he sees and not my cleavage because I plan on accepting the offer. When an aspiring writer is offered help from a published writer, you take it. So if you see me skipping down the sunny side of the street on a balmy spring day and I'm sporting a turtleneck, it's fair to conclude I'm heading to a meeting with my writing teacher.