Exercise 10: A terrible thing to do

I know it is already Thursday, but this week was just too stressful to post any sooner – and besides, a writing exercise seemed unimportant compared to the elections in the U.S. The continuing uncertainty is still stressful, but I have gotten a bit more used to it. So, to pass the time, here is the last of the writing exercises from Steering the Craft.

Chapter 10 is called “Crowding and Leaping” and deals with narrative flow and what details an author includes and what they leave out. One line from the chapter that I particularly like was: “Some say God is in the details; some say the Devil is in the details. Both are correct.” Page 118

Le Guin also says that there isn’t really an exercise she could come up with on this topic – it is such a fluid thing and unique to each story (and storyteller). So for a final exercise, she gives us “a terrible thing to do.”

“Exercise 10: A Terrible Thing To Do

Take one of the longer narrative exercises you wrote – any one that went over 400 words – and cut it by half.

If none of the exercises is suitable, take any piece of narrative prose you have ever written, 400-1000 words, and do this terrible thing to it.

This doesn’t mean just cutting a bit here and there, snipping and pruning – though that’s part of it…” Steering the Craft, Page 124

I chose the 1285 word short story I wrote for Exercise 4: Again and Again and Again. To see the original, full length story, go here to that post. I was able to edit it down to 628 words…so here is the shorter short story!

Personal Earthmovers (shorter version)

Though the surrounding hills were lined with tract houses rising side by side up curving streets, it was still shocking to see the denuded foothills. Earthmovers and bulldozers were leveling terraces for another development in another Los Angeles suburb.

            Like punctuated equilibrium, thought Lily as she drove north; the hills evolved into housing in fits and spurts. The bigger developments might stall for a time, but eventually the next hill was stripped and built up.

            Usually, she only saw L.A. now on weekends and holidays when she came to see her family. Why am I even going to this funeral? She asked herself.

            The funeral was for the mother of her old high school friend, Gillian – but it had been 15 years since she last saw Gillian. Lily had never actually met the woman they were going to be burying today. She had lost touch with Gillian after high school, but then a message from Gillian had come on social media a couple of years ago. It had stayed casual for the last few years: the occasional photo or happy holiday text.

            Then came the text a week ago about Gillian’s mother’s funeral. Lily didn’t reply at first, she thought maybe it had been accidently sent to her. The next day another text from Gillian came: “Are you able to make it, Lily? It would mean a lot to me.” Lily looked at her calendar: she could make it. But it would be a hassle. She hadn’t even known the woman.

            But as she finished up at work and drove home that day, one thought overrode the others. There must be a reason she asked me. You don’t get asked to go to a funeral for no reason.

            When she got home, she texted back: Yes, I can come. I will be there.

            The reply was immediate: Thank you

            And here she was a week later, back in the valley, 15 years since she moved away.

            A black felt sign with press-on letters listed the services taking place that day at the church with arrows pointing in different directions. Gillian’s mother’s service was outside, graveside. Several blue awnings shaded rows of white folding chairs. A few people were already seated. Lily didn’t see Gillian or anyone else she knew.

            A miniature backhoe was parked about 10 feet away from a small pile of dirt; a large square of plywood and a fake grass carpet covered what must be the hole for Gillian’s mother.

            Gillian and her family entered in a procession from the back of the church, a young boy in a suit with a crooked red tie carrying a polished wooden box. Gillian walked slowly next to him in dark sunglasses, a hand on his shoulder to guide him. 

            One of Gillian’s sisters gave a eulogy, talking about their mother’s obsession with her Thanksgiving china set that elicited a few chuckles. The box sat serenely on a small table, framed by the backhoe’s mechanical arm.

            A cemetery employee stepped forward and asked if anyone would like to stay for the internment.  Two men in blue hard hats were removing the fake grass and plywood. Another man from the ground crew was in the personal-sized backhoe, inching it forward, leaving track marks in the grass.

            He deftly filled the hole and tamped it down a few times with the bottom of the shovel. The ground crew placed some sod squares over the naked earth as an acknowledgment that the ripped ground was not whole, not healed. Lily stayed behind while the ground crew finished up and crawled the backhoe away, down the hill towards the rock wall where the small bulldozer waited. Then she got up and went to her car to start the long drive back home.

I confess that I didn’t find it that hard to edit this story down 50% – and maybe that is a sign I am too wordy and not specific enough to begin with. It is a good exercise, to be sure – I did have to consider what details to keep and what could go while still telling the story I wanted to tell. It is a leaner story for the cuts – more spare, more spacious. And that’s probably a good thing.

Steering the Craft is a great book and I enjoyed all of the writing exercises in it – some more than others, of course! If you are looking for a writing guide book that isn’t too heavy (literally and figuratively), I would say Steering the Craft is for you. It is accessible, easy to work with, and infused with Ursula Le Guin’s wit and good writing.

2 thoughts on “Exercise 10: A terrible thing to do

    1. Marcy Erb

      Agreed – it was (and is) a great exercise! Le Guin acknowledges that every storyteller has a unique voice and I think she would agree that rules are definitely made to be broken (for example, she goes on a long rant in the book about the usefulness of the passive voice and what she thinks is a ridiculous rule about never using it). My take-away from this book was that you just have to be intentional about when you do break them 😀

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