Back at it with Exercise 6 from Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft book. Chapter 6 was about verbs, specifically dealing with person and tense. This serves as a prelude to chapter 7, which is a long chapter on point of view. I have to admit I procrastinated on this exercise – and I did so for a reason that surprised me! First, though, the prompt:
“Exercise Six: The Old Woman
This should run to a page or so; keep it short and not too ambitious, because you are going to write the same story twice.
The subject is this: An old woman is busy doing something – washing the dishes, or gardening, or editing a PhD dissertation in mathematics, whatever you like – as she thinks about an event that happened in her youth.
You’re going to intercut between the two times. “Now ” is where she is and what’s she’s doing; “then” is her memory of something that happened when she was young. Your narration will move back and forth between “now” and “then.”
You will make at least two of these moves or time jumps.
Version One: Person: Choose either first person or third person. Tense: Tell it all in the past tense or all in the present tense. Make the shifts between “now” and “then” in her mind clear to the reader – don’t two time us – but be subtle about it if you can.”
–Steering the Craft, Page 58-59.
I went with third person and past tense. I procrastinated almost two weeks on writing this because I got really hung up on what I was going to have the old lady doing. I loved that Le Guin suggested the character might be editing a mathematics PhD thesis and I decided that I should have my old lady character doing something similarly against the stereotype of old ladies. And then I couldn’t write it! I had a hard time picturing or describing it and then I cursed myself for my internalized sexism and ageism. It was a vicious cycle that resulted in me not writing anything. My compromise to get the exercise done was to have my character responding to an event rather than doing something specific.
>>Genie stood in what was left of the doorframe and felt the heat still radiating from the charred remains of her living room. In the morning air, smoke curled off of black lumpy piles. She was too numb to cry. She remembered passing beyond tears as she watched the firefighters smashing windows and axing holes in her roof the night before. The fire had taken strange bites out of the house. It was beaten back by the firefighters, yes, and this saved the rear half of the home. But some objects and corners had been protected by pure chance. Her pink flowered print easy chair was singed but completely intact. It sat regally in a large square of black char. Like a dollhouse that’s been in a fire, Genie thought.
“They look like dollhouses,” her little sister said as they waited for their father to come out of the service station. Genie turned to see the façade of the Santa Barbara Hotel was missing. She could see the furniture and draperies in the rooms. Their mother pulled them back against her; she had them each by the hand and had refused to let go since they left the house. Normally both girls would have protested, they were 7 and 5, after all. But Genie, for one, was still scared and gratefully held her mother’s hand. The shaking in the early morning was frightening, but it was the sound that Genie couldn’t shake. The low roar had engulfed their house in an instant: the instant before the earth rolled and shook.
The fire had a sound too, a roar that was haunting her now, in the light of day. The sirens had been loud as they howled in the dark country night, coming towards her. But the fire hummed and throbbed like the deepest part of the ocean bringing up mysteries. She crunched over to her china hutch in the corner of what was once the breakfast nook. The cabinet was mostly intact, seemingly a lucky survivor. The little knob on the door was still warm, but Genie resolved to pull it open. It resisted her for a moment before breaking from its hinges. It swung free and the sudden weight caused her to drop it at her feet with a yelp. The dishes inside were sooty shells of her good china.
Her mother’s good china was a victim of the earthquake. It was thrown about on the kitchen floor and they crunched over it to get out in the night. Their house was damaged, cracks radiating from the foundation, but mostly intact. Many of their neighbors were not so lucky. But no matter the apparent state of the home in question, everyone spent the next night outside, sleeping under the stars. Falling stars were not a liability like falling paintings and bookshelves. Her father called them “aftershocks” and they came, giggling the pieces of the china on the floor and the loose plaster, with alarming frequency. >>
I tried to be subtle about the narration shifts; I keep going back and forth on whether I was too subtle. My tendency with such shifts is to declare it loudly: “And then Genie remembered when the earthquake struck her home…” and so it was good for me to try to dispense with that. Next week will be the same story but with different person and tenses!
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