Monday, November 4, 2013

Assignment #1: Write What's There

“Nick [. . .] walked down the railroad track to the bridge over the river. The river was there.” -Ernest Hemingway.
My first fiction workshop in college was taught by a guy named Bill Hallberg.  Bill loved Hemingway.  Said he could read A Movable Feast in the time it took him to do his laundry.  Our first assignment in his class was just that, an assignment, not a story.  If we stumbled on a story, or something like one, that was fine, but that wasn't the point.  (As a side note, I'm sick right now, so forgive me if any of this comes out sideways).

The assignment was simply this: write a scene from your life.  It didn't even have to happen to you.  This can be something you saw waiting for the bus.  It can be a string of little happenings throughout the day.  It can be as simple as a setting.  Don't try to write a scene with emotional significance.  Don't try to dig into the heads of people around you.  Just write what's there.  No more than 2,000 words, and as few as 100, if you like.   

Bill loved the impressionists, and we used to talk about art in class some of the time.  Artists do this same exercise.  If you're learning how to draw, you don't draw what you think an arm looks like, because you'll get it all wrong, or you won't draw any two the same.  You draw what you see.  That's it.  You look at your model or your photograph and you follow the light and the lines as they are.  You don't over think it.  Don't over complicate what you're doing.  Slow down and draw what you see.

Sure, this is basically an exercise in the precision of concrete details, and probably observation and focus.  I'm not saying you should write like Hemingway, and I doubt that's what Bill was suggesting either.  But when you do this, when you fashion a person or a moment without adornment, without any qualifiers, or rhetorical tricks, when you just show the thing as it is, and you're brave enough to let the details speak for themselves, something comes through.  Maybe that something is a glimmer of what it's like to be a human being.

Try it.

If you need help, read all of Hemingway's In Our Time.  That should get you started.  It did me.

Here's a piece: 
Chapter II
Minarets stuck up in the rain out of Adrianople across the mud flats.  The carts were jammed for thirty miles along the Karagatch road.  Water buffalo and cattle were hauling carts through the mud.  No end and no beginning.  Just carts loaded with everything they owned.  The old men and women, soaked through, walked along keeping the cattle moving.  The Maritza was running yellow almost up to the bridge.  Carts were jammed solid on the bridge with camels bobbing along through them.  Greek cavalry herded along the procession.  Women and kids were in the carts crouched with mattresses, mirrors, sewing machines, bundles.  There was a woman having a kid with a young girl holding a blanket over her and crying.  Scared sick looking at it.  It rained all through the evacuation.
Painting by Monet 

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