Friday, August 26, 2011

I'm in fiction workshop and exploring place

Our professor asked us to send her a paragraph with five things we want to work on in our fiction writing during this online workshop.  Four of the five that I sent to her:

1. Capture the feel of place by describing the area where the action is occurring so that it informs the story and reveals the characters that inhabit it.

2. Make place a character.

3. Learn to more seamlessly explain things that may not be familiar to my reader.

4. Recognize what may be problem areas for the reader earlier in the writing process. I would like to pre-workshop my own work as I go along. I will be paying close attention to what confuses other participants in my drafts. 

After sending that, I received our first writing assignment which included, by coincidence, a prompt on Place. We are to write about our home place (real or imaginary), being vivid in description. 

I have been thinking how I am going to get a character in my collection of short stories back to Tennessee, where she will be writing the stories that are included.  So far, she has resided in my head.  I've only written down the stories she writes, not the elements of her story that tie them together.  Here is a part of the first draft I batted out to get me started thinking about my home place, which not-so-coincidently is Tennessee.

How She Gets Home...

The idea opened itself into a certainty on my way home from meeting Mischie for supper. The radio was playing a song—strange because it usually is tuned to news on NPR. But it was a Friday night, and there was music. At first the idea flittered around the dashboard and lit on the top of the steering wheel, teetering between no and yes as I steered the familiar way to Laurel Canyon Drive. It was because I finally understood that lyric from the song playing that night—“On Broadway.” The glitter rubs right off and you’re nowhere. How had I known that song all my life and just understood that line? What had I thought it said? As the words were seeping deep into my mind, I remembered walking into Times Square in the spring of 2005.

“It’s much smaller than when they drop the ball on TV on New Year’s Eve.” I even told that to the vendor selling me the cheap t-shirts. Six dollars apiece or three for $15 for “New York” written out in big letters over a skyline without twin towers. The black guy with the dreadlocks took my twenty, gave me change, and assured me it was a common opinion.

I’ve been so many places. Miles underground to float on an underground lake in the salt mines of Austria. I stepped from a train onto the siding at the Gare du Nord, which is still a train station, and stared at Renoirs in the Musee d’Orsay which used to be Gare d’Orsay, and is not now a station for anything other than art. So many train stations, but I walked the whole of Paris, except for a short boat ride on the Seine. Holland for Tulips. London for wax statues and stiff palace guards. The little mermaid seemed to float alone on the cold waters of the harbor in Copenhagen. Købnhavn…barely two syllables when the natives say it. A skilled European engineer had steered our train right onto a ferry from Puttgarden in Germany to Rødby, Denmark. The night crossing was confining, even off the train and on the deck, smelling of fuel oil and fishes. There was no Danake coin required by Charon on that trip, just Deutschmarks or Kroner for hot chocolate at the ferry’s imbiss.

By the time I rounded the corner that Friday after dinner with Mischie, words of the song fading into syllables—doo doo doo doo doo, yeah yeah, on Broaw-awd Way-ay—and got close enough to open my garage door with the push-button controller, I knew I was going home soon. Not to this house where I live with my husband of 29 years but to Tennessee and the past that I had buried deep underground in the pit mines of childhood, back to where I floated on an underground lake of my own creation, ever eight years old, stiff like a statue, liable to melt, past memories that smell of Aqua Velva and wood smoke. Guiding the car into the garage, I turned off the engine and the song. I heard again the jingle of mule harnesses. I always and ever do.

That's it.

It's the first draft, so none of it may remain by the time the collection is done.  It all stems from reality except for the London reference.  It's a way for me to start putting the writer into the stories in a concrete way.  She has resisted appearing up to now.  Wonder why?  Not really.  I can use this exercise to lead my brain into thinking about place for my assignment and the stories.  My fictional Tennessee setting--Chickahatchie County--needs to step into the stories in a big way.  I think they will all fall flat if the countryside doesn't walk and talk and take no prisoners.   This county is a big presence in my mind.  It's like the country sherriff in some movies--quiet but decisive.  Deadly even.  Understated to the casual glance, but with a handle on everything.  If I write it wrong it will be awful.

I hope it won't be awful.

Betsy and the mules are counting on me.