I have been reading Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story; A Norton Guide to Creative Writing. I don’t usually love to read books on writing. I’d much rather just read good literature and creative non-fiction writers. But I LOVE this book. Love it. Every sentence a gem. I’ve been working my way slowly through it, which means I am actually stopping to do the exercises. I usually just blow through books like these because I just want to get it over with. Reading about writing has always felt like taking vitamins to me. I know I should take them, but I’m not really sure they are making me healthier.
In the chapter “Details, Details” she dives into “imagery that works on two levels.” Here is an excerpt that, frankly, scared me.
Imagery is your way in to material. It’s your way of reaching down into your subconscious and finding out what you really think about a person, place, thing, event. By describing it honestly and completely, and not leaving out anything, no matter how seemingly incongruous, you are finally writing.
Finally writing. Ouch. Have I been doing this? Have I ever done this? What have I been doing?
She includes an exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I felt compelled to try it. I’ll start with my quick piece, then afterwards I’ll explain the directions. I only allowed myself about 10-15 minutes to do this. Not because the directions said to, but because I will never do these exercises if I think they will take too much time. I also did not edit afterwards, as much as I wanted to, especially as I drifted off to sleep later.
The barn stood out alone on a hill. Its wood was weathered, grey, brittle, riddled with holes along the bottom from termites. Each plank looked in danger of crumbling by even a child’s weak kick. The doors hung loosely and uneven, and wailed a high pitch groan each time the wind nudged one side open. The door sighed as it swung back into its disjointed, but familiar, position.
Inside was a mixture of sweet hay, mouse feces, sweaty leather, and dander from no less than a hundred animals who had sheltered here since the last nail was placed. In a corner stall, a bright blue baseball hat still hung tossed on a high hook. SIMONE BLUE DEVI reflected the light each time the door swung open from a gust. The LS was missing, having been picked off by nervous fingers years prior.
A rippled, shining stallion snorted in another stall. An old metal highway sign was propped up behind him, and every now and then a loud DING would sound out as the horse kicked at the wall. The sign was riddled with dents. The stallion, in his impatient stamping, seemed to rebel against the stillness and age of the barn, his strength and life defying the walls to come down. DING, DING…DING.
Ok, here were the directions: Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, the war, death, or the man.
I don’t know if I really stepped beyond what John Gardner ungenerously calls “the hack mind,” the mind that instantly leaps to sentimental images of death. I like Alice LaPlante’s kinder assessment that falling upon the standard images of death is due to the “inexperienced” mind. I figure if you are needing a book like hers, it’s okay to be inexperienced.
If you try this yourself, it would be fun to post your piece in the comments section. I’d love to read them.