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Month: January 2009 (page 1 of 4)

developing a character with 20 questions

“It begins with a character…” Falkner reminds us, and so this is where we’ve begun our fiction writing practice this semester. Borrowing an activity from Ostrom, Bishop, and Haake, entitled “20 Questions: Character Witness,” I asked my students to breath life into their imagined characters through some quick responses to–yes, that’s right–2o questions. So, here’s the questions along with my responses…

  1. What is the exact age of your character—years, months, days?
    Bev is 47, but she looks 57. She was born in Joliet, IL on September 17, 1961 at 6:33 in the evening. It was 92 degrees, hot and humid.
  2. A place where your character is living or visiting begins to burn. The character has a few moments to escape. What does he/she grab—save?—before getting out of the fire and why?
    She rounds up her dogs–five Pomeranians–because she loves them more than her illegitimate teenage son who sleeps in the room next to hers above the shop.
  3. The character enters the room in which you are sitting. He/she sits down near you and places his or her left hand on the table or desk near you. Look at that hand. Describe it in as much detail as you can. Quickly. Go.
    Veiny. Spidery and bruised near the top of her wrist where they blew out her vein with the IV in the hospital the week before. Red nail polish, chipping. Nails chewed. Her palms are callused. Skin dry and flaking from the bleach she uses to clean the shop floor.
  4. This may against your nature, but let’s at least pretend you’re a real snoop. You have access to a wallet, a pocketbook, or a purse belonging to your character. You have an opportunity to go through it, and—being a snoop—you seize the opportunity. What’s in the wallet, pocketbook, or purse? Take the stuff out. Describe it. If there’s lipstick, say what kind, color, what kind of container. Money? How much exactly and how is it organized? Keep going into the details of the contents. Is there something about which the character would be especially embarrassed? If so, what? If not, what do you make of that?
    Her purse is large–about 16 inches across. The faux leather has long since lost its shape and the black veneer is flaking to expose the gray fabric beneath it. It sags like the jowls of the English bulldog her uncle Ned had when she was a child. The purse has a strap, but she never carries it over her shoulder on account of her back, preferring instead to grasp the strap wrapped twice around her hand, dangling as she stammers through the Walmart parking lot. Inside are piles of what she might need or what she has forgotten. A round bristle brush with hair knotted tightly around the plastic core. Smokehouse, rolled doggy treats with soft sausage centers, lying loose amidst gum wrappers, a snackpack of roasted peanuts, tampons, and her checkbook. Pantyhose, previously worn, bunched and bound into a tight ball. Four bottles of beige foundation cream. A lipstick–Maybeline, crushed mauve. A business card from Sally Beauty supply. There is a number penned on the back. A picture of her kid. One picture of each of her babies, the five Pomeranians–Chi Chi, Boo, Baby, Groucho, and Samson. The keys to her 2008 Grand Prix, leased. Two large bottles of prescriptios pills–Oxycontin and Vicodin for her back.
  5. You walk into a room in which your character is napping. Without waking the character up, you lean down, put your nose close to one side of your character’s neck—just below the ear—and sniff. Describe what you smell.
    Cigarettes, Poison (the perfume), and barbercide.

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why “story-truth” is truer than “happening-truth”

We’ve been discussing, the relationship of truth and fiction in my writing classes lately. More specifically, we’ve been discussing the idea of truth in fiction. It can be a tough sell, with students balking at my arguments, refusing to believe that there can be any legitimate truth to that which is so clearly labeled “fiction”–the graceful lie after all–that is until I share a piece by Tim O’Brien entitled “Good Form” from his collection The Things They Carried.

I’ve taken the liberty of recording my reading of it below. It’s quite short, but it will stick with you for a while. It did for me anyway.

“Good Form” by Tim O’Brien

writing with my students: a philosophy of art

Each semester, I tell myself that I will write with my students–that I will complete each of the assignments that I ask them to complete (particularly in my creative writing classes). It makes sense, and after a number of semesters not doing this, I begin wondering if I am a bit of a hypocrite for not doing so or if I can even do the very assignments I assign. The tough reality is, though, that by the time I’m done planning my classes and developing the assignments (not to mention responding to and grading them), there is very little time for me to do much else. Just the same, this semester, I’d like to try again–at least for a couple of the assignments even if it’s just rough work.

One of the first pieces I ask for in my fiction writing class is a response to a number of questions about why one pursues fiction writing. My hope in having students begin to articulate answers here is to raise some awareness of their own philosophies as artists and writers. I want them to recognize the possibilities of their art beyond it being a pleasant pastime. Here’s what I prompt them with:

Why do you write, or why do you want to write? What do you hope to achieve with your writing? What do you hope to gain from this work? How do you hope to affect others with your work? What will they gain? Can you describe your philosophy towards your art? (I know this is a hard one. It’s really the bigger question that we will be working towards, but give it a shot now. Just play with it. Think through writing.)

So here goes my rough and rapid response…

I write because I breath. The act of truly living requires that I consider my relationship with the people around me, within the natural world, and within the webs of significance that we, as human beings, weave to create meaning during our time on this earth. I write to keep my eyes and heart open. As distant images of distant suffering flicker across my television, I write so that I can feel something, to know that other’s pain is not so distant, to save myself from the perils of indifference.

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” asked E. M. Forster. I write to think, to know what I know. It helps me literally work out problems through writing–to figure stuff out. As I sit scribbling late into the night, or alone in my car before braving the parking-lot walk to my office in the dead of winter, I write to surprise myself.

I write to say what I otherwise couldn’t. There are words I don’t dare utter for their sound afloat in the air would surly shatter the glass threads that bind me to others–or some–and crack the facade of composure I maintain. I write to face my fears or to hide from them.

I write to tap my “wild mind,” an image Natalie Goldberg brings to our collective conversation on writing,–to seek refuge in the wildness that saves me from the suffocating illusion of order that I force on my day-to-day life. Through writing, more is possible; change is within my reach.

I write to connect with others, to express my humanity, to seek human communion…

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