Saturday, July 3, 2010

BEAR AT THE DOOR, Where are my fireworks?

So my writing group is on hiatus until September. Oy. The question is, how to keep the momentum going? Where are my fireworks without Writers On Fire? Where do I find fabulous writing exercises like the ones my writing coach provides? And the answer...the answer is WRITING FICTION, A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Chock full of great exercises like this one: "For this exercise you will create what Jerome Stern calls the 'Bear at the Door' scene. In this scene, your character must have an external problem. ('Honey, there's a bear at the door.') The problem should be significant. ('Honey, it's huge.') The problem should be pressing. ('Honey, I think it's trying to get in.') And the problem should force your character to act. ('Honey, do something!') Your character should have an internal conflict that affects his/her ability to deal with this problem--the bear within him/herself. I set my timer for ten minutes. This is what I wrote:

My mother is on the other side of the door and she is trying to kill herself.

"Why should I go on?" She invites me to save her.

I look around as if I will find some magic baton to twirl and make her alright. Or at least a key to unlock the door. "Mama, don't say that."

I lay my hand flat against the wood door--cool from the a/c which has been running now for days. Suddenly I worry about the bill she will have to pay after I leave. That's if she lives, I remind myself. I want to pound on the door and tell her she's stupid.

"Mama I love you," I say instead. I can hear her sobs.

"Just give me a few minutes," she says.

But I can hear a pill bottle, the rattle of capsules against the plastic shaking like a snake's tail on the other side of the abyss.

"Okay," I say. "Promise me you won't do anything."

No response.

I wonder where she keeps her gun. Being from the South she probably has one. I check her bedside table drawer, her purse--just a bunch of used Kleenex and lipstick. Under the bed?

Once, when I stayed with her in Georgia, a man came to the door in the night. He said he had a book of matches and was going to set the house on fire if she didn't let him in. All I remember is her telling me "Back up," and then aiming a huge shotgun at the door. Tonight she aims it at herself. Only I am on the other side of the door. And the gun? The gun is a bottle of pills or whiskey or whatever else she has in there with which to do herself harm.

The man went away eventually. Mama said she knew he was drunk. I fell asleep but she sat up all night with that shotgun across her knees listening for the sound of a match striking.

I smell cigarette smoke from under the bathroom door. I sit down with my back against the wall and stretch my legs out into the shag carpet. This is a good sign. If she is smoking--she isn't dying. I hear the ring on her finger tap against the plastic tub and I can almost see her in there, perched at the edge of the bath in her nightgown smoking a Menthol 100 and dabbing at her tears. And all I know is I hope that is never me.

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