Saturday, February 26, 2011
With blowing snow and a late start we had the honour of hosting a writing workshop with Sheldon Currie.
Our first exercise was for each member to write one word, then we combined all those words and wrote a few paragraphs.
She remembered the first day they met. The parlor in his mother's house had a brilliant chandelier that looked like the icicles hanging from the dead tree over Manson's Brook. The brook, there was a place that brought back her fears; family secrets and internal dread of malignant genes. Her mother had chosen the Virginia Wolf exit plan in Manson's brook, and she was always contemplating her own state of mind, the depth of her sadness, on a daily basis.
But today was sunny, there were prospects on the horizon including Joe. On the first day, the iridescent afternoon had lulled them all into a contemplative heap desiring nothing more than tea and light conversation. But Joe had come to visit his mother with a stern objective; the sale of her house was pending, where would she go. He dreaded the thought of her moving in with him. Would she consent to live in the seniors complex up the road or would she see that as a resignation to death.
By Katherine Brush
They were a couple in their late thirties, and they looked unmistakably married.
They sat on the banquette opposite us in a little narrow restaurant, having dinner. The
man had a round, self-satisfied face, with glasses on it; the woman was fadingly pretty, in
a big hat.There was nothing conspicuous about them, nothing particularly noticeable, until
the end of their meal, when it suddenly became obvious that this was an Occasion—in
fact, the husband’s birthday, and the wife had planned a little surprise for him.
It arrived, in the form of a small but glossy birthday cake, with one pink candle
burning in the center. The headwaiter brought it in and placed it before the husband, and
meanwhile the violin-and-piano orchestra played “Happy Birthday to You,” and the wife
beamed with shy pride over her little surprise, and such few people as there were in the
restaurant tried to help out with a pattering of applause. It became clear at once that help
was needed, because the husband was not pleased. Instead, he was hotly embarrassed,
and indignant at his wife for embarrassing him.
You looked at him and you saw this and you thought, “Oh, now, don’t be like
that!” But he was like that, and as soon as the little cake had been deposited on the table,
and the orchestra had finished the birthday piece, and the general attention had shifted
from the man and the woman, I saw him say something to her under his breath—some
punishing thing, quick and curt and unkind. I couldn’t bear to look at the woman then, so
I stared at my plate and waited for quite a long time. Not long enough, though. She was
still crying when I finally glanced over there again. Crying quietly and heartbrokenly and
hopelessly, all to herself, under the gay big brim of her best hat.
Copyright © 1946 The New Yorker. All rights reserved.
Originally published in The New Yorker.
In the workshop we discussed this piece and were asked the following questions:
How many characters-3
What do we know about each-man whose birthday it is, wife, dinner
Who is telling the story?-narrator a fellow diner in the restaurant
Why did the author chose this narrator?- dispassionate observer, had no opinion about the couple, judged by their actions only. It's the show don't tell rule of writing states of emotions.
If story told by different narrator how would it change?- if the husband or wife told the story there would be much more emotion attached to the story. It may be too melodramatic and loose readers in the overplay of emotion.
Comic or tragic, could it be comic?if husband it could be comic in a nasty way
Our exercise in the workshop was to rewrite this short story from a different perspective. I choose the perspective of the husband. As follows:
After all these years she thinks this will make up for her inattention, her snideness and her disregard for my welfare, my needs, my wants, my desires. Look at her in that hideous hat, flouting her fashion sense when it is me that has been paying for that sensibility for the past thirty years.
I should have been smarter younger, now it's too late. Her beauty is gone and so is my tolerance. I hope she knows this is the last little extravagance I plan to afford her.
Here it comes, the musicians are playing a birthday chorus and the waiter is bringing the cake.
Must she make a spectacle of us at every turning point. It has gotten so that I dread public outings. She's hoping for adulation from her fellow dinners because she know she won't get it from me. I know her too well to fall for this false celebration. This cake isn't for me, it's for her- to feed her own vanity by placing her at the center of attention.
Well I am not going to play her games anymore. And I tell her so. She starts to shed convincing tears and I look as evil as Hitler. To hell with it. God damn Happy Birthday to me.
“Waiter, bring me a scotch, double quick”
In the workshop we rewrote this poem using a different metaphor.
Wish for a Young Wife
My lizard, my lively writher
May your limbs never wither
May the eyes in your face
Survive the green ice
Of envy's mean gaze;
May you live out your life
Without hate, without grief,
May your hair ever blaze
In the sun, in the sun
When I am undone
When I am no one.
Wish for a young wife
My Herodotus, my multi-storied resource
May your pages never tear
May your ink remain bright
and not fade with my constant attention
or smear with unwonted tears
May you live out your life
On and off the shelf
without ridicule and criticism
And your binding ever strengthening
In the sun, in the sun
When I am undone,
When I am no one
Thanks to all those who participated, especially Sheldon for his great insight and exercises. And thank you to DesBarres Manor Inn for letting us use their terrific space to host the event.