Destiny (Flash Fiction)

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We’re using the book The 4am Breakthrough by Brian Kitely in my MFA Advanced Creative Writing Workshop class. The book is a compilation of writing exercises.

This week I selected one called Self-Loathing.

Basically, the directions say to write an incomplete piece of narrative (500 words) in third person about a character who deeply despises herself but without letting on to the other character(s) in the scene that this is the case.

I chose the exercise because I thought it would be interesting to imagine a character’s internal conflict and pain born from a secret so awful that it carries over into her everyday life.

If this was complete, I’d love to include more backstory about Destiny’s past and how she came to be who she is. But even without all of that I like how this turned out. To me, it feels like a snapshot taken in what should have been a happy moment if not for such a sad life.

Destiny:

“So… what do you think?” Nina asked Destiny.

It was the final gown fitting. As the oldest of four girls, Destiny had been through two of these already, once for each of her other sisters’ weddings. There were no sisters left, thank God, so technically this was the final final fitting.

In just a few days, Nina, the baby of the family at 28, would walk down the aisle and marry her stockbroker boyfriend, Antonio, and once that happened then only Destiny would be left. She managed a smile, but wondered if she’d qualify automatically for some sort of society of spinsters, or if she’d have to officially apply.

“You look beautiful!” Destiny gushed.

“You really think so?” Nina said and twirled a full 360 degrees around in the mirror.

“Like a princess,” Destiny chimed, trying not to let on the pain she felt inside.

Nina was beaming from ear to ear and Destiny could tell by the expression on her face and the excitement in her voice that her sister thought she’d finally found the one.

But Destiny wasn’t so sure…

Nina and Antonio had only dated—a term Destiny had always used loosely—for three months when he popped the question. There’d been plenty of other contenders before Antonio. Destiny wished her little sister had chosen one of those instead. But Nina chose Antonio.

Destiny wanted to be happy for her sister but happiness never came easy for Destiny. In fact, she couldn’t quite remember if she’d ever been truly happy.

“We’re going to have a cake and sing Happy Birthday to you at the reception,” Nina said. “You know… as a thank you for all you’ve done for us.”

“Oh. That’s so… sweet,” Destiny said.

Destiny tried not to think about all she’d done. Instead she pictured a blaze of 39 candles. Guests would need to be evacuated and the whole thing would be her fault for getting so old. On the upside at least Destiny wouldn’t have to jump out of the cake and blow a train of groomsmen.

Destiny first started stripping with the clichéd intention of putting herself through med school but then she flunked out of school because she was stripping when she should have been studying. It was great money and such a rush. She never regretted her choices until the day she went and fucked her baby sister’s fiancé for five hundred bucks.

As the bridal consultant assisted Nina with her virgin white veil, Destiny looked past the blushing bride-to-be and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She touched her face and cringed—another wrinkle. She should have stayed in school, she thought.

“You’re next!” Nina teased, hoping to cure that familiar frown.

But Destiny didn’t want to be next.

“Fingers crossed,” she said anyway and forced a gracious smile through a hopeful sigh.

I’ll keep my mouth shut today, Destiny thought. Then she peeked down at her watch sensing it was time for another Zoloft.

“The Writing Life”

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Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, and many of its messages have stayed with me these past few weeks as I continue to read and write, and a few in particular have even carried over, playing like background music, as I live.

There’s no denying the fact that Dillard hits the nail on the head when she describes what it’s like to be a writer. I mean, wow. I felt this way in the early chapters when Dillard spoke of the pain and importance of rewriting, chopping, developing the “courage to tie off the umbilical cord” of first drafts, pushing through mistakes, and even as she touched upon writing habits like drinking too much coffee. So many times, I saw myself in Dillard’s stories and explanations.

Honestly though, I could do without so many personal anecdotes. While a few have been spot on and managed to open my eyes wider and make me think, there were those, too, that left me scratching my head. Some of Annie’s stories missed quirky and landed on mundane. I still don’t understand the points in sharing the coffee pot story, the butterfly mating story or the dream in chapter four. I found those to be confusing in general and, at times, even a little boring. That’s not to say I won’t have some sort of eureka moment later and suddenly understand.

Still, I love when writers share with us these types of personal insights into their own lives and explain why and how they write. I love the sneak peek into their writing processes, methods, thoughts, fears and quirks.

That said; when I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or King’s On Writing, I got the feeling that these writers lived and wrote. They ate, drank, traveled, experienced different cultures and people… they lived (and in King’s case continue to live) full, satisfying and interesting lives. But I don’t get that same message from Dillard. Dillard says “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.” By her own description, she locked herself away and missed the fireworks (literally). I find that sad. I also think that feeling comes across in her writing. While I think Dillard writes beautifully and intelligently, I wish her stories came from living rather than from hibernating. She’s such a strong writer, I’d be curious to know how much more wonderful her stories might have been if she allowed herself to live more.

I want to live and write. In fact, I put off writing (full time anyway) for a long time so that I could live. Rather than pursue a writing career straight out of college, like I always thought I’d do, I chose another route—a fun, scary and far more adventurous route. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a conscious choice to collect stories and experiences to later write about. I simply craved knowledge and experience. Looking back, I know my writing is a product of my experiences, old and new, and my relationships, those I’ve nurtured along the way. If I don’t live my life, I’m not sure what I’d write about. And while I, too, lock myself away these days to write (and though Dillard hates the idea of “trancelike” writing that’s often what I do) and, in doing so, I ignore and shut out the rest of the world, I still take breaks from writing to live, love, laugh and learn.

For my own writing, specifically the novel I’m currently overhauling (for the fourth time), Dillard’s many messages are both poignant and practical. Dillard gives me perspective and a welcome shot in the arm when she says things like “what would you write if you knew you were going to die soon?” but she also gives me hope with things like “it takes between two and ten years” to write a book and “it is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion.”

Sure I’m obsessive and completely bullheaded, dreamily optimistic and borderline nuts, but those qualities are normal for a writer with a dream. Those qualities, I believe, eventually pay off and take us where we want to go.

In this week’s lecture, Professor Hurt selected the quote: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book; or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things will fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”

That quote really spoke to me, as well. In fact, I typed it up, printed it out and taped it to my laptop. I need to read this message every day. I also made it my Facebook status. I wanted to share it with other writers and even non-writers. I want to remember it as I write this draft, as I try my best to “give it all” this time. And while it’s a lesson on writing it’s also a metaphor for life—another twist on the classic “live life to the fullest.” Not only is this a theme throughout Dillard’s book but it’s also an important life lesson. Isn’t living life what we all want to do? Writers are no different except we need to live life and write about it to the fullest, too.

Over the break, I finished reading Miss Hempel Chronicles. The novel turned out to be wildly different from what I expected after reading that first chapter. The book is a compilation (or chronicle) of multiple stories and that chapter was just one of them. It didn’t take long for my quirky, fun and funny middle school adventure to morph into a wacky, strange, sometimes sad and heavy flashback of this woman’s soured life and disappointing youth. I wasn’t expecting any of that. Without revealing too much and ruining the literary experience, which really was a good one, the book was really two stories—two completely different stories—in one. But this works perfectly because, in a nutshell, Miss Hempel Chronicles is a story (or two stories, really) about a woman who lives two different lives. Circling back to Dillard and her message, Miss Hempel Chronicles captures Miss Hempel’s whole life, not just her life as an elementary school teacher. It succeeds because it doesn’t save the good stuff. It leaves nothing out.

In my writing and in my life, I plan to do the same.

Trying Again

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Trying Again:

Oh, 4AM Breakthrough, why hast thou forsaken me? So many sleepless nights spent working, writing, caffeinating, counting. Finally done and now do over? Be kind, rewind? Definitely looks that way.

But Val Zane’s no quitter or towel thrower inner! She sticks with it like an overly obsessed addict slash hyper sensitive perfectionist through tears, pain, wind, rain, hurricane, bad hair days… sure, whatever. United States Postal Service has nothing on her!

Right?

Hell yeah!

Smooth Jazz. Yellow Submarines? Crying baby? Sorry, just procrastinating.

Inching ever closer. Progressing painfully. Slow. Steady. Still hanging!

Goal suddenly within reach. Feeling increasingly optimistic.

Skim. Scan. Examine. Snagged four smarmy stowaways!

Continue reading. Thoroughly searching for possible reiterations. Caught one blunder. Oops, two. Delete. Erase. Eradicate mistake after… ha, missed another landmine!

Repeat process. Found somewhat random echo. Die unwelcome redundancy!

Gaining confidence.

Spoke too soon?

Microsoft software should provide adequate assistance. Damn you, Bill Gates! Spellcheck was totally useless here. Find function worth only slightly more. Ugh.

Second verse same as the first? Shit.  Calculating words certainly sucks. Even worse? Math mixed into nouns, verbs, adjectives, conjunctions—grammar arithmetic? God, what a mess.

Brain malfunctioning, shooting stinging synapses from senseless screen staring.

Classmates, (hello, Kevin?), please use your keen editorial eyes! Help! Check my work. Calculate all accidental doubles, triples, quadruples. Inspect, dissect, collect, highlight any potential errors made.

I can beat Kiteley’s game. Want to bet? Vegas odds? Friends, this time, say exercise #43 will not win!

Hopefully.

Maybe.

Who knows?

Word Count = 250

Happily Ever After

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This exercise came from the book 4AM Breakthrough by Brian Kitely. The instructions say to write a 250 word story without repeating a single word. Each word must be different, even the title.

Whoa… this was hard! Not being able to repeat words like “the” or “a” and “an” proved pretty challenging! But to make it easier I chose to write it about my favorite muse: my daughter, Lyla. Awwww!

(Let me know if you spot any repeats!)

Happily Ever After:

Once upon a time (this one right now), there was an incredibly sweet, sassy, beautiful, bright, happy, healthy (thank God) 3-year-old little girl named Lyla Rain Henderson.

With passionate adoration for some pretty random if not wildly ordinary things, including but not limited to: vanilla ice cream, hugs, kisses, apple juice, family, friends, preschool, stars, triangles, octagons, shapes in general really, princesses, puppies, pirates, picnics, fairies, racecars, road trips, running, singing, dancing, ballet class, bologna, butterflies, baseball, the moon, stars, Looney Tunes, rainbows, horses, squirrels, cupcakes, castles, spaghetti, school busses, clouds, laughing, fruit (specifically bananas, strawberries, apples, pears, blueberries, cantaloupe…), vacation, movies, milk, McDonald’s, muddy puddles, playing games, reading, coloring, flowers, snacks, snow, knock-knock jokes, make believe, glitter, buttered toast, Twizzlers, Tootsie Rolls, toys, her hair, airplanes, fairy tales, scaring people, dresses, candy sprinkles, yogurt smoothies, green grass, taking baths, going fast, flying over railroad tracks, big trucks, hay bales, helping, holding hands, cornfields, carrots, crocodiles, edamame, using chopsticks (well, trying), magic, cardboard boxes, pancakes, presents, unicorns, Dora, being best friends, talking your ear off, telling stories, learning math (not me!), eating graham crackers (AKA: yummy rectangles), giving mosquito bites (you might say “pinching”), food shopping, swimming, smiling, stirring liquids (yeah!), swinging on swings, spinning herself dizzy and, finally, all things pink, she makes our world so much better just by being part of it.

Run-on? Maybe. Long list? Definitely. But it’s okay.

Another fortunate mommy, I love my daughter more than anything. Oops. Check that. Everything.

Word Count=250

“The Writer in the Family”

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This week’s lecture posed the questions: “Why do you write? What does it mean for you to be a writer? What do you want your stories and novels to do?”

I write because I love to write. Even when I don’t love what I’m writing or when the pain of writer’s block sets in, I continue to write because I love writing. It’s who I am. I’m a writer. I want my stories to fulfill my need to write them.

In the short story “The Writer in the Family,” E.L. Doctorow opens: “In 1955, my father died with his ancient mother still alive in a nursing home.” As a reader, I’m chuckling uncomfortably already and asking myself questions. For one, why doesn’t he refer to his father’s mother as grandma, nana, mum-mum or any other cutesy name we tend to use when describing our parents’ parents?

“The Writer in the Family” grabbed me immediately. Maybe it was the empty way the narrator spoke of his recently deceased father or maybe it was Doctorow’s snarky “ancient mother still alive in a nursing home.” The way the story is narrated is both bitter and funny, and I love that. Would she have been dead in a nursing home? It also reminds me of the way we as people speak sarcastically of our families when we have deep-rooted, hard to understand issues with them.

Non-writers get to simply speak this stuff out. Whether the stuff, if you will, is good or bad, they talk about it, deal with it and move on. They brag about their kids at family functions, bash their in-laws in the form of a joke at a cocktail party, update a passive aggressive Facebook status or two, and/or commiserate mutual marital problems with friends over coffee. Or maybe they skip all of those middle men (and women) and go directly to a psychiatrist. Well, writers write. This is how we deal with it… whatever it is.

The part in the story I most related to came early. “You’re the writer in the family,” the narrator’s aunt says. She butters him up with flattery, lays on the guilt and then asks him to write a fake letter to his grandmother pretending to be his father. The narrator clearly doesn’t want to do this. Who would? But he goes on: “That evening, at the kitchen table, I pushed my homework aside and composed a letter.” He writes the letter and the aunt is brought to tears by it.

Being the writer in my family has its advantages and disadvantages, too. I get to be the “artistic” and the “creative” one. However, I also get to be the “moody” and “obsessive” one. I can’t argue. I am all of those things. I get to write all the resumes (my dad once said “you made me sound like me only better.”), cover letters, eulogies, holiday card messages, love poems, complaint and/or thank you letters which typically start out “dear sir or madam.” I get to proofread all the homework (well, all but math). Last week my brother Frank called and asked me to write him a “fake note” saying why he kept his 16-year-old son, my nephew C.J., home from school. When he argued that “raging diarrhea” wasn’t a good enough reason, I argued it was much better than “I took him to the Eagles game. They lost… again.” Even though these things can be, at times, annoying, I say “I get to…” because, even when it feels like a curse, it is still a privilege to write.

As Doctorow’s story continues, the letters (and the guilt) progress and they weave into a sort of life story. It’s not a true story but in a way that doesn’t matter. It becomes Jonathan’s father’s story, a legacy of sorts, and though it begins as a way to protect the frail dying grandmother, it becomes something bigger. The letters help the family to grieve and they help Jonathan learn and come to terms with his father’s life and death, as well. Even when Jonathan expresses his desire to stop writing the letters, he can’t. He needs to do this. He is being called to do this. Not simply by guilt or grief or love or some sort of family obligation, but by that inner voice inside of him who tells him who and what he is. Like you and me, he is a writer.

Works in Progress

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When I quit my job as an event planner to pursue my literary dream, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t realize my life was changing forever.

I banged out a novel in three months. I was proud of it though I knew it needed work. But I’d reached the finish line on something that had been a goal of mine for a very long time. It felt good. The feeling was so good that I decided to submit it to agencies and publishing houses. I received feedback from several, rejections from most. All of this inspired my second draft.

Joyce Carol Oates says: “Any artist who is impatient with revision is probably doomed to be forever an amateur: “promising” through a lifetime.”

How fitting. Each of us shows promise as writers. Whether it’s through talent or drive or a combination of the two, there is a promise for something more.

I’ve now written two whole novels, though neither is finished. Now I’m writing a third and a fourth while revising the first two. Friends say funny things, like “You’ll never be happy. Just self publish already” or “You’re just afraid to be finished.”

No, that’s not it at all. I’m afraid to say something is finished when it’s not. I’m afraid of putting my name on something that hasn’t reached its potential. I’m afraid that finishing it now would be the equivalent of throwing in the towel long before the game is over. I have so much to learn and my writing continues to improve with each new lesson. Self-publishing certainly has its merits but I’m not ready for that either. If I knew my work was “perfect” or even close, maybe I’d consider it. But though I‘ve come so far I know I’m not even close to where I need to be.   

Oates says: “Writing can be revised, living cannot.”

What a great Facebook status! Also, what a fun way to look at this process we have chosen! Writing gives us the opportunity to strive for perfection or at least our idea of perfection. As writers we can continue to improve through our writing and we never have to stop improving—even after we say something is final. I’ve heard of many professional writers who continue to tweak their manuscripts even after they’ve been published. Perhaps that’s the perfectionist spirit or maybe it’s hard to break the habit of consistent improvement? Maybe it’s the promise to be the best we can be or to see the writing reach its purpose. Are we ever really done? 

Oates says: “We don’t know what we’ve written until we read it through as a reader, expelled from the process of the work, and no longer as a writer enthralled by its creation.”

This seems true and yet I wonder if I’ll ever be able to separate myself enough from my work to be able to be a reader and not also the writer? How is it possible to make that distinction? As a mother, I know it’s impossible to see my daughter as a child without also being her mother. I gave birth to her. Whether it’s a child or a creative work being born from another, how can the person giving birth be expected to be objective? Is it possible?

Oates says: “Lady Chatterly’s Lover exists in three quite unique manuscript versions of which the last was the one to be published, and become infamous.” In her lecture this week, my writing professor says: “Those who have been writing for a long time will usually tell you that what they start out with only bears a partial resemblance to what they reach at the end.”

Being on my fourth complete overhaul of my first novel, this gives me hope. This draft will be nothing like the first. Versions two and three were already dramatically different. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever “finish” this novel. I don’t know. But I know I’ll never stop trying.

Another Sleepless Night (a short short)

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Note: This short short story was inspired by an exercise in the book “3AM Epiphany.”

The instructions of the exercise were to combine an original poem of my own with a poem previously written by a professional poet, and use them to create a new 700 word short story.

For the professional poem, I chose one called Sleepless Night written by Tiziano Thomas Dossena and made a few tense changes for the sake of consistency in my story. This is what I came up with…

Another Sleepless Night:

A sleepless night spent struggling through the meanders of my mind in endless explorations, I laid there staring at the ceiling wondering and worrying about nothing important while waiting for the Sandman to come.

Instead of counting sheep, an exercise that never made much sense to me, I counted nonessential items I’d lost and random things I’d forgotten to do. In fact, it wasn’t until my 3AM epiphany when I realized those infinitely unimportant items on my life’s ‘to do’ list.

Innumerable considerations scattered around as stars in the sky, none with enough light of its own but adaptable in their interconnection to show me the way. The harmony of the universe, confined for a moment in the boundaries of my head, exploded in its beauty.

At some point in between stressing over that missing flip flop and trying to recall if I remembered to set the timer on the coffee pot, I sank into slumber. The thirst for knowledge had kneeled at my need of sensations.

Bittersweet memories of lovers past, some real and others made up in my mind, erased all the powerful thoughts leaving a proven soul sighing in an exhausted body. The dread of the night had subsided and a sudden warmth had overtaken me. While the first sunbeam snuck through the window I suddenly remembered how to sleep.

A split second or maybe an eternity passed and I was asleep and, yet, I was aware I was dreaming. I didn’t mind. I’d had this dream before. And it was a good one.

“Hello, Alejandro,” I said in a fuck me tone I’d have probably never used in real life.

Alejandro didn’t respond. He knew there was no time for conversation or mindless chit chat. There was business that needed attending to and he and I were on a stiff deadline.

Wasting no time, Alejandro climbed into my bed and kissed me. His breath was close and warm like a space heater. In retrospect, it may have been the space heater. I tried to focus while he drew a line from my mouth downward with his tongue. My mind fell away and my skin seized the day. My spine lifted as I pushed into him. He pulled back, pursed his lips and blew a cool concentrated breath across my stomach. I gripped the sheet beneath me tightly and hoped it wasn’t a cold wind coming in through my window being sent to interrupt us.

Not wanting to take any chances, I turned over onto him and returned the favor.

“Let’s get this party started,” I said.

In real life, I never would have said that. I was aware of that. Still, my dream lover, Alejandro, smiled like it was the coolest thing he’d ever heard. So I rewarded him.

It took but a split second to satisfy him. It was my dream and my rules after all and I was anxious to take my turn.

Alejandro was just about to go down on me again when Mother tapped on my window that morning seizing my skin with her breeze and my mind with the click-clack of leaves falling from trees. Still I squeezed my pillow in denial. If you knew Alejandro like I’d known him, you wouldn’t have blamed me.

My thighs held on to Alejandro’s face and my eyes held on tightly to slumber—a slumber that had eluded me for so long. I pressed hard on my subconscious Snooze and I writhed in pleasure as Alejandro finished what he came to do.

Afterward I wanted to snuggle but my brain wouldn’t allow it. Like a cheap date with an adventurous streak, he dined and dashed. Unfortunately, the man of my dreams was also a jerk. He came and went as he pleased.

I didn’t have time to miss him or pine over him or negotiate him back. I wasn’t beyond lying to myself to keep a good dream going—or a bad man, like Alejandro.

But my loving Mother found another way to keep us apart. She sent the rain to trickle and tickle sweetly on my subconscious mind with its dripdropdrip dripdropdrip. Autumn sensations replaced with those of coffee and cream and delicious caffeine.

Apparently I remembered to set the timer. Suddenly I was awake.

More Prose, Stuff She Says and How It Relates

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When asked by her students to share one final lesson on writing, Francine Prose replied: “The most important things (are) observations and consciousness. Keep your eyes open, see clearly, think about what you see, ask yourself what it means.” As writers and as writing students we should take this advice to heart. We often hear the words: “Write what you know.” This is basically another way of saying that. Prose is saying write what you know but she is also saying think critically about what you know and what you think you know. In order to write, we need to truly know what we’re writing about. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Octavia Butler makes it a point to know what she’s writing about. Not only does she clearly research the past and incorporate what she has learned about that distant time and place into her novel but she also incorporates her own experience and feelings into it. In Kindred, The Storm (page 191), Butler writes: “Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch.”

Butler’s working knowledge of the past and the present (1976: Dana’s present and Butler’s) is profound. She shares what she knows about both settings and she incorporates her own raw human emotion so that we can be right there with her, feeling with her.  I believe this is what makes great writers—the ability to emotionally connect the story to its readers.  

Prose also says: “I told my class that we should, ideally, have some notion of whom or what a story is about—in other words, as they say so often in workshops, whose story is it? To offer a reader that simple knowledge, I said, wasn’t really giving much. A little clarity of focus costs the writer nothing and paid off.”

In Kindred, Olivia Butler never loses sight of whom and what her story is about. Dana’s journey, the people and places she encounters, and the lessons she learns along the way are not simply revealed but they are carried throughout the whole novel and interlocked thematically. We can’t lose sight of things which are always there and which stay with us as we turn each page. 

Butler does not write for the sake of writing or give us anything that isn’t critical to the story’s progression. Every element she shares has a purpose. As a student who is studying Butler, I’d love to know if this is something that comes naturally to her or if it’s a product of stringent editing. My gut tells me it’s probably a combination of the two and as I nurture my craft that gives me hope.

When I write I often get lost in the writing and I sometimes lose track of the big picture. Sometimes I don’t even see the big picture until I’m editing. Because of that, I often have a lot to chop. Chopping these days isn’t as painful as it used to be (these days I think of editing like getting a haircut—if the ends are dead, why keep them?). Back when chopping was more painful, I used to keep a growing list of my chopped lines and phrases. I didn’t want to throw them away altogether so instead I saved them so that I could later turn to them if and when I felt stuck in a story. I stopped doing that because I realized it was holding me back. Those words and sentences were cut for a reason. Recycling is great for the environment but I’m not so sure the same can be said about recycling words or relationships. In my opinion, it’s better to say goodbye for good to an old flame (or old words and sentences in this case) instead of holding on and hoping he or she might eventually be right for a friend.  

As with most things in life, my writing is getting better with practice and, of course, reading the work of other writers helps too. By studying novels like Kindred and paying close attention to such masterpieces and deconstructing them with the help of the lectures and lessons, I’m learning the importance of the big picture and how that concept relates back to my own writing. It’s not just about telling a story, manifesting themes and communicating messages. It’s also about creating something—not just a sum of parts, but rather something whole—that delivers on its promise and ties all the pieces together without leaving anything important out or stuffing anything irrelevant in.

Gesture Abuse

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In  the chapter on Gesture in “Reading Like a Writer,” Prose says: “Perhaps I should say that my definition of gesture includes small physical actions, often unconscious or semi-reflexive, including what is called body language and excluding larger, more definite or momentous actions. I would not call picking up a gun and shooting someone a gesture. On the other hand, language—that is, word choice—can function as a gesture: the way certain married refer to their spouses as him or her is a sort of gesture communication passion, intimacy, pride, annoyance, tolerance, or some combination of the above.”

In the story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” Flannery O’Connor is very descriptive. Through his vivid descriptions he makes it so easy to picture settings and characters in our mind. In fact, he describes each character in his story so explicitly that he inevitably uses gestures to continue his descriptions. Throughout the story, he bounces back and forth between description and gesture, peppering in at least one or the other (and often both) into every single sentence.

Flannery begins the story with multiple descriptions and gestures. In the very first line, he says: “All week end the two girls were calling each other Temple One and Temple Two, shaking with laughter and getting so red and hot that they were positively ugly, particularly Joanne who had spots on her face anyway.”

“Temple One” and “Temple Two” are gestures similar to Prose’ example of “him” or “her” being intimacy gestures for a married couple. In addition, “shaking with laughter” and “getting so red and hot” are also gestures. These gestures get O’Connor’s message across more eloquently and pointedly than any description could. We know immediately that these two girls have a close connection since not only do they have pet names for each other but even their pet names are tied together (the names themselves reminded me of Disney’s Thing One and Thing Two). Then in the same sentence “shaking with laughter” and “getting so red and hot” gives the reader images of hilarity and an overall giddy BFF-ness that cannot be misinterpreted. These two are not just friends; they are best friends.

Prose also says: “Even the greatest writers may use stock gestures or employ gesture badly.” When O’Connor writes, on page 462, “…and the child was convulsed afresh, threw herself backward in her chair, fell out of it, rolled on the floor and lay there heaving” is a good example of this. It was just too much. While each phrase is familiar and gets the message across that the child was hysterical, the sum unfortunately breaks the believability of the story. Basically, he went too far with the gestures. 

As I grow as a writer, I’m learning that overusing gestures, putting them where they don’t belong or stuffing them in useless spots where they do nothing for story progression are all easy things to do. Perhaps too easy.

Prose explains:  “Too often gestures are used as markers, to create beats and pauses in a conversation that, we fear, may rush by too quickly.” I do this all the time. In a misguided attempt to find a nice cadence, I often lean on gestures. I wasn’t aware of it until now but I’m guilty. To break up dialogue or to add action where none exists I’ll throw in the unnecessary hair flip or the occasional eye-roll. I shudder to think how many times I’ve made a character glance down at the floor or sigh in disbelief. Not only do I agree with Prose that we employ gestures when we’re seeking a certain rhythm but I think we also lean on them during times when we’re simply at a loss for action.

I want to keep this lesson and some others in the forefront of my mind as I approach my revisions. Reading Prose’ chapter on gestures and realizing that even highly successful writers, at times, lean too heavily on, overuse and downright abuse gestures altogether is helping me come to terms with my own gesture addiction.