Tag Archives: narrative

Short and Long

This is exercise three in Steering the Craft. This exercise was broken into 2 parts, short and long. This set of exercises was one of my favorite to date. I did not particularly care for it the first time I tried, but the second time around, I had a better feel for how to approach this style of narrative.

Part one: Write a paragraph of narrative, 100-150 words, in sentences of seven or fewer words. No sentence fragments! Each must have a subject and a verb.

The glass fell, shattering on impact. She sat motionless, unfeeling. Her mother gave her that glass. The fragments gleamed in the sunlight. They reminded her of life’s fragility. Broken glass was now all that remained. She wept while sweeping up the pieces. She counted the shards as they dropped. She spoke aloud: “one, two…forty-nine.” They numbered the years, exactly. She died so young, her mother. Life had a way of sucker punching. “Goodbye,” she whispered, closing the lid.

The challenge for me initially in the exercise above was realizing that short sentences did not mean short words. All I could think of was “see spot run.” I hope this was a little more compelling than spot 🙂

Part two: Write a half-page to a page of narrative, up to 350 words, which is all one sentence.

Raucous laughter rang through the halls as he ran, short legs pumping, trying to carry him as fast as they could; away from the eyes, the teeth, the gestures–the ridicule of the taunting children who cruelly threw their leftover lunches at his feet, compelling him with the smell, to eat, but pride would not let him bend down to pick up the bitten sandwiches, half cookies; he was used to being hungry, he was used to disappearing through sheer force of will into a quiet space inhabited by only his thoughts of a better life where hunger pangs were not his constant companion and, just once, shoes and clothes and underwear were not leftovers, so no, he would not pick up the lunches, his stomach told him otherwise, so he did the only thing he could do; he ran, as fast as his legs could carry him away from the temptation of a second hand lunch to further humiliate him and his second hand life, his discarded dreams, like their discarded sandwiches lay at his feet as he tried to outrun their taunting — you’ll never fly around the world, you’ll never see a whale, you’ll never be more than a second class dreamer of broken and discarded dreams, he ran, his legs burning, but he wouldn’t stop, not this time, not ever, he would outrun them, he would, he would — “I will!” he screamed as he tore through the gates of the school, ignoring the calls of the security guards, ignoring the pain in his toes as the too small shoes supplemented with cardboard, to fill the places where holes had been worn, threatened to burst from his feet, leaving him to run barefoot on the blistering pavement; but he wouldn’t stop, not now, not ever– no more broken dreams, no more discarded wishes; he would run, he would run or he would die, he would run because that’s all there was, all he could do to escape the place where life was cruel, and to a place where dreams would flourish.

The first time I attempted this exercise (long) I ended up with a blank page. I could not think of a single thing to write. I tried. I think that it was because I was typing on a computer, and so, I continued to erase what I had written and by the end of the time we allotted, I’d erased everything. This time, I resorted to good old fashioned pen and paper. It helped. I think this exercise helped me understand how better to write urgency, to convey a feeling of tension. I may revisit this exercise just to continue practicing this technique.  

12 Years a Slave

I just finished reading 12 Years a Slave. I, being of African descent in the United States and educated in its Public Schools, had never heard tales of free men being kidnapped and sold into slavery. I do not know how pervasive a practice it was but, the fact that there is a written first person account of one man’s treacherous experience is enough for me to believe it happened far more frequently than documented. I am one of the fortunate generations reaping the benefits of emancipation and the Civil Rights Act. I have never had to raise a finger to fight for my education, equal opportunity, or ability to go about the mundane activities of my daily life unmolested. I can work remotely, have a flexible schedule and a reasonable manager.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be at the mercy of a cruel master; your every waking moment dictated by the whims of another human being who does not care about your health or well being. The atrocities suffered by the slaves in Solomon Northup’s novel (and visually depicted on screen in gut wrenching detail by the amazing Steve McQueen) caused me to acknowledge my privilege. It trivialized even the worst of my complaints.

I am free to wake at my leisure, travel without an issued hall pass like a school child, and can challenge authority with no fear of retribution. I am a vegetarian by choice, and turn my nose up at poor quality cuisine. I am, without exception, a free woman. I have never been poorly treated or feared for my safety. I grew up with all of my family under one roof in a loving household. The fact that slaves were not allowed to read, write or own pen and paper made their captivity all the more unbearable in my eyes. Writing is my escape. It is my release. They were not afforded even the simple pleasure of self reflection.

What is so striking, and what further endeared me to Solomon Northup’s narrative, is that he had no desire to be a “great” man. He simply wanted to live a good life with his family. To wake daily and go to work, to come home to a meal prepared by his wife and enjoy the company of his children. A modest aspiration by any measure. To breathe free. The final statement of the book is one written by a man devoid of any designs on vengeance :

 “Chastened and subdued in spirit by the sufferings I have borne, and thankful to that good Being through whose mercy I have been restored to happiness and liberty, I hope henceforward to lead an upright though lowly life, and rest at last in the church yard where my father sleeps”

To have endured 12 years a slave, and come out with any semblance of a spirit is remarkable. The resiliency of my ancestors chides me silently for my ungrateful days. For taking for granted my gift of freedom. Accounts such as these challenge my perception of difficulty and endurance, and beg me to ask the question “What is my responsibility?” Surely to leave, upon my departure from this Earth, a better world than the one I inherited. I pray that I will have the tenacity to endure what (small) hardships I must encounter to carry out the mission I am tasked with, whatever it may be. I am grateful that Mr. Northup left behind his legacy so that all who read it can be reminded that freedom is to be treasured, and that we are all capable of impacting the lives of others through even the smallest act of kindness.