In my third year of college, we read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I believe it was a fiction workshop, though the book is considered a nonfiction novel. As we went around the room discussing the book’s setup and the way Capote presented the characters, I said something that made the class erupt.
I said I didn’t like the daughter–a young girl who was brutally murdered in the book and in real life.
I was insensitive. I was brutish. I was completely out of line.
One of the most popular writing prompts I’ve posted here on The Sensitive, Bookish Type is also my favorite: The Opening Line. Today, we’re doing basically the same thing but instead of working with a novel’s first line, we’re working with the novel’s last line.
At random, I reached onto my shelf and grabbed Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. This will be interesting for me because I haven’t actually read it yet–excepting, of course, the back cover. But that doesn’t matter because I’m not trying to extend the story itself. I’m simply borrowing its last line.
Arms about each other’s shoulders, the Babbitt men marched into the living-room and faced the swooping family.
Now, without planning ahead, I’ve come across a perfect example of the theory upon which this exercise is based: the end of a novel should always read somewhat like a beginning. Unless everyone dies at the end (which would be a very poor ending, in my opinion–not even Shakespeare had EVERYONE die) the end of one story is always the beginning of another. So now I shall use this last line to start a paragraph of my own. In this case, I’m going to replace the last name with the name of a family in the novel on which I’m currently writing. My exercise, below, might not be the beginning of a story, but certainly the beginning of a chapter.
There are a lot of amazing story writers–more every day, I think. What makes a short story brilliant? Well, that’s a matter of opinion. Some want to define it or find a formula; I used to be one of those. Anymore, I’ve given into my tendency to feel instead of think. Rather, my tendency to feel while thinking, and think about my feelings.
You know the Myers-Briggs test? I like to think I’m an INFTP, because when it comes to the think vs. feel questions, I always think, “Why not both?”
I had a classmate in grad school who became a bit obsessed with the idea that his protagonists should be somehow impaired: injured, disabled, ailing. He was interested in characters who were at war with their own bodies, taking the whole “man vs himself” dilemma to another level.
I didn’t think about it too much then, but since I got my wisdom tooth pulled yesterday, I’m thinking about it now.
Probably the most famous example I can come up with is Hitchcock’s Rear Window, where Jimmy Stewart’s broken leg is the impetus for the whole story. Of course, not all examples are so extreme. In Richard Russo’s novel, Straight Man, the protagonist is struggling with a prostate problem that always seems to act up at the most inconvenient (or for the writer, convenient) times.
So that’s my challenge for you this week: get your character laid up. Make him or her work against his own body.
A conversation with Lydia Millet, from Willow Springs (I might be biased here, because I was one of the interviewers, but throughout the conversation Lydia dazzled me with her wit and intelligence; if you haven’t read any of her fiction, I highly recommend you do).
I think any writer of substance is a cultural critic by nature. Almost any. I think books should have an agenda, but I don’t think you should be able to deliver a one-liner about what that agenda is … I just want to feel that it’s there, pulsing behind the bones.
An interview with Aimee Bender, from The Rumpus–an especially interesting read for writers with children, especially writers who are mothers, especially writers who are mothers who have read a good amount of Bender’s work.
Rumpus: How has being a mother of twins affected your writing routine?
Bender: So far no routine at all! But they’re very new and very little so I’m just taking a break from writing, which actually feels good. It’ll be different, though—my two-hours-in-the-morning routine can’t work like it has for a while
An interview with Amy Poehler about her memoir, Yes Please. Though the last two writers are both very funny, there’s such a difference between humor and comedy. I thought this would be a good contrast with the other two interviews. I certainly won’t posit that Poehler is an author in the same league as Bender and Millet, but she is a cultural icon in a way that the other two are not, and her book is memoir while the other two write fiction.
I’m used to writing in characters and not really writing about myself. And it was easier to share the early parts of my life rather than my own current events.
For writers of all genres, “writer’s block” is as inevitable as death and taxes.
All artists experience this. The brain needs its rest, the muses need their vacations, and everyone who’s ever been serious about creative endeavors has sat staring at a blank page, canvas, brick wall, stage or computer page and thought, “I can’t do this.”
But did you notice that I put “writer’s block” in quotation marks? That wasn’t a typo. I “know” how to “use” “quotation marks.”
Seriously, though: I believe that the phrase “writer’s block” is a crutch we use to make our creative clogs seem more serious than perhaps they are. I’ve known writers who treat it as an illness; when they’re blocked, they can do little more than sit around drinking soup and binge-watching Netflix. They spend a lot of time nursing themselves back to health, so to speak. This can last indefinitely.
I’ll keep this one brief, because today’s writing prompt is something I want you to feel more than think about. Look at the picture of Mr. Potato Head. Really look at it. How does it make you feel? What does it inspire? Laughter? Sadness? Dread?
Okay, now add to that the opening line, “I’m falling apart.” See where it takes you.
I’ll share mine in the comments if you share yours!