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01 October 2003 — Creative Writing: Fiction (17)

I'm in the Clackamas Community College bookstore, looking for the texts for Writing 241: Creative Writing — Fiction. I've taken the class twice before—once in 1995, once in 1998—and, from my experience, the textbooks are written by the instructor and completely useless in the context of the class. They're never referred to once the entire class.

The current texts look no different, and I decide not to purchase them.

As I turn to leave, some other books catch my eye. Hm. There's apparently a Writing 240: Creative Writing — Nonfiction. How did that escape my notice? And look at the texts! They have titles like Creative Nonfiction: Finding the Truth. (Not an actual title, but it's close.)

I leaf through the texts. They're amazing. They delve into the types of creative nonfiction (personal memoir, investigative journalism, etc.) There are entire chapters on reordering timelines, on the moral issues involved in self-censoring.

Why am I not taking this class?

Right. First, it's held on Monday nights. I'm not willing to miss our weekly MNF gatherings. Second, I do creative nonfiction every day. This is what I do. I'm learning experientially. I'm discovering the moral quandaries on my own, here in this forum, with your help.

Still, I might take the class next term.

The classroom is full. Of young people. The two previous times I took this course, it was sparsely populated. By old people. People over forty. I was always one of the youngest before. Tonight there are twenty-eight students (more than twice as many as in the past!), and at thirty-five years old, I'm one of the oldest.

One woman, about my age, was unable to register for the class because it is full. She's brought a tray of warm chocolate chip cookies, and when the instructor arrives—a boyish fellow younger than me—she's at his side immediately, proffering her bribe. "It's up to you," she says, impish. "The class is full. But I have this plate of cookies and you can have them if you let me in." She's ornery. She's probably a great writer.

Rick, our instructor, says he'll think about it.

Rick is the kind of instructor who likes to write on the board. He writes down one word from every sentence he speaks. If he says, "Hemingway said that a story is like an iceberg," he'll write ICEBERG on the board. If he says, "I flew in from Pennsylvania this morning," he'll write morning on the board. Or he draws a pictorgram to summarize several sentences. For example, as Rick descibes how earlier in the day he read Calvin Coolidge's obituary in the New York Times archives, he draws a primitive casket (a rectangle with a crucifix) surrounded by four stick men. When he tells the story of burning soybeans the other night, the board is a jumbled mess: the blueprint of his apartment, curls representing billowing smoke, cartoon cats that look like tomatoes.

It's clear form the start that this creative writing class will be different from those I've taken before. All of the others have had a workshop format, where the group comes together to read and discuss three or four student-produced stories every week. Rick lectures most of the three-hour session. He has us perform an in-class exercise. He talks about noticing. I like the Dostoevsky quote he's placed in the syllabus: "Nobody got to a single Truth without talking nonsense fourteen times first. Maybe even a hundred and fourteen." This could be the motto of my life. (And note that Dostoevsky is referring to capital-T Truth and not lower-case-t truth.) This class is going to be good.

Before we leave, Rick hands out our first assignment. It requires reading the textbooks. Both of the textbooks!

I guess I should have bought them when I had the chance.

Things I noticed during class:

  • The nervous laughter of teenagers.
  • Heather and Christie want to start a cult. They have notebooks filled with information on this proposed cult. "It's going to have a wall of snakes."
  • "Scared children are the most delicious," says Adam, and I decide that I'll steal the line for some yet-to-be-written children's story.
  • Kristina's garden is "gaining respect each day", though I'm not sure what that means. She went to Africa once, and was almost eaten by a lion, but in the end the lion wasn't hungry.
  • The oldest member of the class, a crusty old guy wearing a hat indoors, chewing a toothpick, says that his goal is "to live to see tomorrow."
  • Christie also says: "I don't set goals; they only lead to disappointment" and "I want to be a hobbit".
As I'm leaving class, I overhear a guy on a payphone: "So can I come over? [pause] "Tell her I'm a good kid now. I go to school, and I have a job." A few minutes later I see him again, racing a motorcycle through the parking lot, its engine pop pop pops and blue smoke oozes from the exhaust.

It was a good first class.

Want a challenge? Our first assignment is to write a twenty-eight sentence story using each of these words (and phrases), in order, in a new sentence. (It's okay to re-use a word in a later sentence.) The words can be used in any possible context. (For example, rose can be a flower or a woman's name or the past tense of rise.)

1. Miami, Florida. 2. Puce. 3. Artichoke. 4. 3:00 a.m. 5. Hand. 6. Vanilla. 7. Cigarettes. 8. Snow. 9. Bum. 10. Rose. 11. S. 12. Arugula. 13. John. 14. Crisp. 15. Red tie. 16. Hoby. 17. The wave. 18. Autumn. 19. Clamdigging. 20. Clyde. 21. Big bang. 22. Meeting. 23. Screams of pain. 24. Alarm clock. 25. Gameboy. 26. All night. 27. Undress. 28. Pioneer Square.

Actually, I've got the rough outline of a story formed, though it's ruined by that last phrase: "Pioneer Square". I'm not sure how to work that into the last sentence…

On this day at foldedspace.org

2004Printing From a Mac Across a Windows Network   After two years I was finally able to print from a Macintosh to a Windows network!

On 02 October 2003 (08:02 AM), Dave said:

What the heck's a "16. Hoby" ?

On 02 October 2003 (08:37 AM), Tiffany said:

Are you going to post your story?

On 02 October 2003 (08:50 AM), J.D. said:

I think a "16. Hoby" is a brand-name. It might be "16. Hobee". Whatever. For my purposes, Hoby is going to be a nickname, as in "Me and Hoby went down to the bar and had us a couple a beers."

I will post my story once I've written it. :)

On 02 October 2003 (10:25 AM), Tammy said:

And because you got drunk you hit a Pioneer square on the head!

On 02 October 2003 (01:19 PM), Mom said:

I took a creative writing class at CCC, but dropped out because I got so depressed when my dad died. Before I did, though, I got the impression that the instructor thought my brain wasn't quite right for writing fiction -- that the way I thought might be too technical. I'm not sure how I got that impresssion, but it was the one thing I brought away from the class, other than a curiosity about his books. (I read them.)

On 02 October 2003 (09:24 PM), dowingba said:

I was in Miami, Florida that fateful day. The beautiful sunrise was made a darkened puce by the heavy layers of pollution flooding the skies. I tried to clear my head as I dislodged a piece of artichoke from my teeth from the night before.

My last memory was of looking at the clock through the smoky haze: 3:00 am. I feared desperately what I'd tell my boss the next morning as I watched the second hand tick idly by. For a second I wished I was in Vanilla Sky and that I could just end it all right now and start again. Then I smoked the last of my cigarettes and my eyes fell shut.

I dreamed I was looking out into the snow covered streets of my home-town. A homeless man, a bum, was lying on the street before me, freezing himself into a cold, shallow grave. Indeed, someone had even dropped a single red rose onto his lifeless body. I looked at his face, his eyes covered by his novelty "S.S. Minnow" hat, probably found at the Salvation Army. The lights grew dim as I noticed it wasn't a rose, but an arugula. His name was John, I knew him. I tried to help him but his crisp hand broke at my touch. I loosened my red tie as it suddenly seemed much too hot. I tried to remember the number for the Hugh O'Brian Youth program, the HOBY, as if it would make any difference. The wave of death had already taken him from me, from that street.

I awoke only to find that it was Autumn, in Florida. That I was on vacation, clamdigging. Me and my partner Clyde. I felt as if life had begun at that moment, the big bang had only just happened. It was the meeting with that strange man that had haunted me so many times before in my dreams. The night sweats, tossing, turning, screams of pain, that kept Clyde awake oh so many years. But now I was as sure I was safe as I was sure that the alarm clock would chime in any minute. Of course, Clyde was already playing his gameboy by the time I left the bedroom. My head hurt from the immense amounts of drinking we had both done all night. I popped a couple T3's as I shut the bathroom door to undress. Little did I know that just as we arrived at our destination that day -- Pioneer Square -- the world would be forever changed.

On 03 October 2003 (09:57 AM), Nikchick said:

On 03 October 2003 (11:33 AM), Tammy said:

Very good story nicki. But I think jd said it was only suppose to be 28 lines. I think dowingba went over that too. Did i misunderstand?

On 03 October 2003 (11:34 AM), Tammy said:

Ok I should have reread this thing. 28 sentencesis different than 28 lines. Got it!

On 03 October 2003 (12:03 PM), Nikchick said:

Yeah, I have some very long sentences in my story. Made use of lots of compound sentences, too. It would be a lot harder assignment to keep it to 28 lines! (Maybe James Elroy could do it though, he writes like a machine gun firing.)

On 03 October 2003 (07:13 PM), Nikchick said:

I shared this little exercise with friends on my "mom list" (all moms of nearly-eight-year-olds, and we've known each other since we were pregnant). I've already gotten one great story back from one of them!

This is fun.

On 03 October 2003 (08:25 PM), dowingba said:

I wonder if separating things using a semicolon counts as two sentences? Because Nik, there's some sentences in there (your story) that are just screaming for semicolons.

On 04 October 2003 (10:44 AM), Nikchick said:

Oh, I know! I completely abused compound sentences and run-ons in that story. :) Like I said, I could only afford to spend an hour or two messing around with it. I figured it's a valid stylistic choice. I don't much like semi-colons and em-dashes and all those other tricks.

There are several minor things I'm not happy with in that story, but if I didn't spit it out, I could have kept messing with it all week and it never would have happened.

On 04 October 2003 (03:34 PM), Mom (Sue) said:

I loved both of those stories! Personally, I'm not picky about the punctuation -- it was the content that I noticed.

On 08 October 2003 (04:13 PM), J.D. said:

Wow. I found this very difficult. It took me all week to complete the assignment, and this is the best I could come up with:

I lived in Miami, Florida one summer, sharing an apartment with Clyde, a fashion designer, John, a gourmet chef, and a cat named Hoby, who had no special talents. Clyde's wardrobe was polychromatic in the worst possible way; he thought nothing of wearing gaudy combinations of teal, orange, and puce. John was as bad with food, and most evenings we were subjected to horrors which ranged from pickled pork to artichoke ice cream. (I was once up until 3:00 a.m. as my body purged itself of John's latest creation, the main ingredient of which was some sort of pungent Asian shellfish.)

We used to play poker with the women from across the street, though the game usually devolved to swearing and shouting by the fifth or sixth hand. Gloria and Lisa liked their game plain vanilla, but John and Clyde insisted on twisted rules where it seemed every card was wild, so that the game was stripped of all skill until only luck remained. Our first few hands—the ladies' choice—were always peaceful, but then John or Clyde would pick a game—"Texas Hold 'Em, but one-eyed Jacks are wild", for example—and suddenly the table would be flurry of shouts and curses and flung cigarettes. When these shouting matches started, I felt as if smothered beneath a ton of snow, so I'd go lay down on the couch until some semblance of calm returned.

One night, before dinner and poker, Clyde brought home a bum. He probably coveted the old man's clothes: his pants were an orange-red plaid, and he wore a wide-collared blue shirt with a rose embroidered on one pocket and an S on the other. "S as in sexy," Gloria muttered, and she laughed, but I shot her a look that silenced her immediately.

During the meal, the old man ate heartily, though he picked all the arugula out of the salad. When John caught my eye and indicated the discarded greens with disapproval, Gloria laughed again. I ignored them, unwilling to begrudge a hungry man his aversion to a crisp salad green that I hated, too.

After the meal, while the Clyde cleared the table and the women got ready for poker, the old man leaned back in his chair and stared straight ahead, seemingly transfixed by the red tie John was wearing. Hoby sauntered into the room and brushed up against my legs.

Then the old man began to speak, his voice like a chainsaw: "My wife never saw the wave. It was autumn. We were at the beach, clamdigging, and the tide was out."

Clyde shifted in his seat, uncomfortable, as he did not want to hear the old man's story.

"I was on my way back to the car with a bucket of clams when I heard the big bang behind me, and then my legs were swept away by the rushing water. I heard a terrible screeching, and thought the noise was from rock meeting rock. When I looked up, I knew it was my wife's screams of pain."

We were silent, even Gloria, so that we could hear the beep-beep-beep of an alarm clock next door. I used my toes to fidget with a Nintendo Gameboy which had become tucked under the telephone table.

We let the man stay for the poker game, let him smoke our cigarettes, let him drink our gin, let him stay all night. Before he left in the morning, Clyde made the man undress and take a new set of clothes, just as ugly as the ones he'd brought, but clean.

When we said good-bye, he told us that he was making a clean start, heading for the other side of the country, for Seattle, where he planned to live the rest of his life on the bricks of Pioneer Square.

On 09 October 2003 (05:42 AM), dowingba said:

You missed the word "meeting".

On 09 October 2003 (05:49 AM), J.D. said:

Actually, I accidentally edited out the the word meeting, which I find pretty hilarious. After I'd finished the story, I went back and re-read it, editing for clarity. Somewhere along the way, meeting got edited out. I noticed this while sitting in class, reading over my story again, and then I hurriedly added "meeting" back in, as I have in my story above. :)

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