This is the second part of Exercise 6 from Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft book. To recap: Chapter 6 was about verbs, specifically dealing with person and tense. This serves as a prelude to chapter 7, which is a long (and intimidating!) chapter on point of view. My take on this exercise has an old woman wandering around the remains of her house after a fire and remembering a different disaster that struck when she was a child.
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 two: Write the same story. PERSON: Use the person of the verb you didn’t use in Version One. Tense: Choose: a) present tense for “Now,” past tense for “Then,” OR b) past tense for “now,” present tense for “then.”
–Steering the Craft, Page 58-59.
In the first version of my response to this exercise, I used third person and all present tense (if you’d like to see it, click here!). So for this version, I used first person and option “A.” In the spirit of Le Guin’s book, I probably should have picked “B,” since that seemed much harder to me, but I took the “easy” way out. I did do as Le Guin suggested and rewrote the whole thing and did not attempt to do some sort of hatchet job on version one to switch persons and tenses.
>> My face flushes from the heat radiating off the black charcoal that was once my living room. Even though the walls are mostly gone, I still step through the square outline of the front doorframe. I crunch over brittle black tile and chunks of burned, unrecognizable, things. I don’t know what to do now or how to feel; I have no tears anymore; the noxious smells and heat singe my eyes and I am certain they would vaporize any tears I did manage at this point. Steam is rising off the hulk that was once my house, I watch it curl in plumes into the still morning air.
The morning after the earthquake had been utterly still like this as well. I’d watched in our front yard as the thick plumes of black smoke poured into the sky from the fires burning in different parts of the city. We were too scared to stay home without our father, so when he decided to walk down to the service station to see about gas, hear any news, and ask about water, my mother, sister, and I trailed along. My mother wouldn’t let go of our hands, keeping us in step with her as we followed our father. Ordinarily, Louisa and I would have objected: in our minds we were basically grown-ups at 7 and 9 years old.
I long to hold someone’s hand now; to feel the relief of knowing my father will protect me and make everything all right. But I am a 75-year-old woman and my parents are dead now 40 years. I wade deeper into the house, heading for my china hutch in the corner of what was once the breakfast nook. The hutch itself is mostly intact. I reach for the knob on the cabinet door: it is still warm, but not too hot to touch. I resolve to open it, to see if my mother’s china has survived the fire. The door sticks and I pull, the swollen wood squealing as it grinds in its frame. With a yelp, the door comes free of its melted hinges and swings in my hand. I drop it in surprise. The china inside is blackened and cracked.
Some of my mother’s china had been lost in the earthquake, so it wasn’t a complete set anyway. I remembered the sound of the quake long after I forgot much of the aftermath. It was a deep cosmic rumble that enveloped the house the instant before the shaking began. Once the shaking did start, there were too many sounds to say what I was hearing. We’d run out of our house, crunching over the broken china on the kitchen floor. Our house was damaged, deep cracks ran up and down the adobe, but we were lucky overall. The house remained standing and was repaired – it is still there today, worth more money in the outrageous California real estate market than my parents could have ever dreamt of.
I cannot say the same for my house now. I am standing in the shell of my kitchen: I still don’t know what to do.>>
Le Guin asks us to reflect on which person and tense we were more comfortable writing in and why. I would say I felt equally comfortable in both persons, but was way way more comfortable writing in past tense. Le Guin describes the present tense as having an “externality and narrowness of its field of vision” and I have always found that too limiting for my taste! But then again, it’s always good to expand your flavor horizons!