Writer and teach Margot Case offered a brilliant workshop at he Richard Hugo House Write-O-Rama workshop entitled Ordinary People. We read excerpts from “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” by Donald Bartheleme, Sixty Stories.
I’d tried The Dead Father by Bartheleme, but found it at the wrong time and had never tried Donald Bartheleme again. What a mistake! I’m hot footing it to the book store to find more of his short stories.
Essentially, “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” is written as a series of vignettes supposedly from Robert Kennedy’s life by various people’s viewpoints. It’s similar to a collection of Flash Fiction.
What happens when we put these disjointed things out there and let the reader’s mind create the meaning and the organization. “The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant, not the line.” The story presents the concept of “surprising” the reader by capturing the moment creatively.
Not only does it surprise the reader, but it gave me interesting ideas on creating characterization by viewing my characters through the eyes of others.
Exercise: Snapshots of a Character
Create a series of vignettes, moments or Flash Fiction pieces about a single character; basically snapshots from moments in a person’s life from different perspectives. A exercise in exploring characterization that would be great for non-fiction as well as fiction writers.
For the first part of the exercise, we made a list of the times we really see people:
— offering a last bite
— in the voting booth
— @ church/temple
— watching CNN/the news/football
— home for the holidays
— unexpected generosity/kindness
— in conversation with mother
— with telemarketers
— new introduction
— on safari/tracking
— treating the cashier
— company picnic
— crying child
— fixing things/ broken things
— when someone asks for forgiveness
— reacting to something broken
— lost while driving
–reaction to success
— asking forgiveness
— stuck in traffic/driving
— response to someone’s misfortune
— being lost
— walking into the water at the ocean
— moments when they don’t know they are being observed
— what others might say
Part 2 of the exercise
Next we selected one of the photos of people scattered around the table and wrote our own Flash Fiction snapshots.
This was an interesting exercise and I think very useful to any writer wanting to find a fresh way to portray a character. Alas, the guys in the workshop were so predictable. The first one wrote about hookers and doing drugs with Putin. The second guy talked about Daniel Craig “screwing” his girlfriend and later his wife. The 3rd man did a long piece about a black singer sensuously caressing guitar. Thank goodness none of them broke out the cigars!
Here’s my efforts working with a black and white photo of an intelligent looking woman looking outside the frame as if paused in her rush to somewhere, something else:
An Unplanned Conference in the Hall
She gets stopped in the hall by a a group of co-workers. There’s a problem. Nothing major, but they can’t decide what to do. She stares at them intently. She understands the entire situation in 2 sentences, 5 seconds. Her face is still but you can tell she’s impatient. She knows the answer and is just waiting for the rest of them to catch up. One of the men finally, tentatively suggests the right solution. He surreptiously glances towards her. She says, “Yes. That’s right.” Then she walks on.
Her Aunt’s Observations
“Oh, she was always good at school, but she got into trouble a lot because she was too impatient. She wasn’t very pretty when she was young. All angles and gawky and kind of klutzy. They all knew her in the emergency room because she was always getting stitched up or dislocated her shoulder or broke a bone. And when you’d ask her what happened, she’d be all wide-eyed with surprise and say she was walking along thinking about something and just fell into a ditch, or drove her bike into a parking meter or some such nonsense. And when you asked her what she was thinking she’d say something like she was thinking about some show she saw about the Conquistadors or wondering why Arthur didn’t just give Lancelot a quest that would take him fair away from Quinevere for several years and crazy things like that. It’s just too bad she doesn’t dress up more and do a little something with her hair. She could be really attractive if she just made a little effort.
“A decaf venti, triple shot, hazlenut, low-fat latte. Please.” She pauses. “And this CD. Thank you.” She pays and puts $1 and the change in the tip jar.
I’m definitely putting this in my writing arsenal. And giving Batheleme another go.