Writing Exercise: Driving (Part 1)

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https://unsplash.com/photos/MgzKmcTFUg0

The driving is nothing for me. Years of practice have taught me to turn off whatever part of the brain is responsible for boredom, fatigue, for feeling your body’s reaction to sitting in the driver’s seat for hours. The ritual is like this: You put the keys in the ignition and you start the engine, and the resulting sound will be the sound of work, a symphony of gasoline and transmission fluid flowing from tanks through lines curling like snakes under the hood, and there is the imperceptible sound of sparks firing, all mechanical processes I don’t fully understand and I don’t care to. I only really know the sound of the engine and the relief of the car starting, which sends off a chemical reaction of endorphins and serotonin that flow within me and pump blood through my veins, as if I am a vehicle myself that is awakening. I am certain this is the same pleasure smokers get from nicotine.

Not me though, I smoked a few cigarettes when I was a kid, a little more than a teenager, and for all my nervous habits and  inclination to step outside of parties into the cold silence of the host’s doorstep, I never understood The Cigarette, or the Ritual of Smoking, although I envied those who did. I watched enviously as my friends borrowed lighters from one another and started conversations with strangers as code for a cigarette. I watched them try it the other way around, too, asking for cigarettes as an excuse to begin a conversation. I saw bulky men with strong hands delicately strike matches across auburn stripes of phosphorus, and I happily breathed in the puff of sulfur that appeared when they shook out the flame. But I myself never liked to smoke. I could not get past the violation my lungs felt as if I had betrayed them, and I felt no pleasure in it.

When I smoked, it felt like I was an actor in a play. Every time I held the cigarette in my hand I could see the stage directions in my mind – She flicks her cigarette absentmindedly and takes a deep drag, staring ahead. I don’t even wear lipstick, so the filter seems emptily used and naked afterwards, no red lip stains, no evidence of Me, and it reminds me of a one night stand that leaves no trace of emotion in your memory.

Oklahoma City is eight hours away, and really, as I said, I don’t mind the drive. I am three hours in and feel the numb high that comes with having no association with my surroundings. Everything is neutral when you are driving. No one is particularly good or bad; people are simply a blur of faces that either smile at you through their windows as you pass them or just stare blankly. I do talk with some people, mostly at rest stops or gas stations. It’s always the usual small talk that involves where are you coming from (Albuquerque), where are you from, and upon hearing I’m from North Carolina (though not mostly recently), the comments follow about visiting a very nice beach in the Outer Banks once whose name the stranger can’t remember. I find myself very cheerful during these conversations. Laughter comes easily and I never feel at a loss for words when talking with a stranger. Short exchanges, meaningless in the end, finishing once we each nod in parting and close ourselves off into our cars, our metal doors a physical end to the conversation.

The open road is a kind of meditation for me. I-40 East flows smoothly like one big black coffee spill and for the most part, I am able to empty my mind completely. Except for the intermittent thoughts of Ethan, and the memory of the blue hair-tie on the closet floor. The hair-tie that was not mine, an object so minuscule, a simple thin, elastic band, an ordinary thing that was only unusual for the fact that it had somehow manifested over the weekend while I was at my spring work conference. Of course, at the moment I discovered it, I at once realized the hair-tie had been a long time coming. It had threatened its presence with the extra work obligations, the sudden interest in texting, and most telling of all, the way Ethan seemed to lose the ability to look me in the eye.

But driving is a good anesthetic, and the memory is pushed further down into my mind with each billboard that I pass. Amarillo comes and goes; I pause there only long enough to stop at an ice cream stand, a wooden structure with thin walls against which several tumbleweeds are beginning to stack. I hold the ice cream in one hand and drive with the other, soaring out of Amarillo and further east, eventually crossing the Texas-Oklahoma border. It is a somewhat drastic change from dust and dirt to endless grass, infinite green. The Oklahoma sky seems to hang lower, its clouds more in reach, billowy tufts of cottony-grey atmosphere hovering above the stretch of highway. The low Oklahoma sky is a total contrast to the New Mexican sky which always remains distant, like the inside of a church, with its high domed ceiling.

I reach Oklahoma City eight hours and twenty-eight minutes after I left Albuquerque. The city is an expanse of typical urban buildings, a jumble of squares and rectangles arranged along sidewalks filled with meandering people: splashes of red, blue, green shirts here and there, most everyone in blue jeans. I have no other plan than to spend the night in this city, away from Ethan, away from my friends, away from anything that requires me to think or assess, make judgments. I take an exit that leads to the downtown area, and the road I am on takes me directly into the city center. I know nothing about the city, having only passed through it on occasion driving between New Mexico and North Carolina, but I have no desire for any more knowledge. I am not here for visiting or exploring. I just want to be away for a while.


The passage above is a fiction piece that I started a while back and just picked up again. I plan to post the remaining parts in the future. Thank you for reading and as always, I welcome constructive feedback!

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Writing Exercise: Time Shift (Part 1 of 2)

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

The passage below is the first half of a short story that came to mind a few days ago. I’ve always been fascinated by people’s stories of their own experiences with the supernatural and the reactions others have upon hearing these tales that seem to defy rational explanation.


I’m not usually one who enjoys talking to strangers. No, twenty-odd years of working in my line of business – accounting – have instilled within me an appreciation for the quiet comfort of numbers and order over the convoluted speech patterns enjoyed by so many others in our society. I’ve never been particularly interested in overhearing the droll gossip of strangers in the supermarket check-out lines or the impassioned stories guests on local radio stations so vehemently recount.

However, despite this somewhat reclusive personality trait, there are times during the winter season that I do recall a story relayed to me (and several others) by a young gentleman years ago. The tale was of the type so unique and without comparison that my mind only drifts to it on nights like these, when the snow and wind are fierce allies, and the air has that peculiar crispness which only winter nights offer.

Forgive me for my long-winded manner, but the sequence of strange events seems even more disordered with the passing of time (if time truly does pass one by), and I will do my best to communicate it all as it happened.

I believe the year I heard the story was 1984, as I was in Aspen for a skiing tournament that winter. That was the last year that I skied, due to my knee injury slipping on the porch stairs the following spring, but until that complication, I was still agile enough to compete. I wasn’t very skilled and certainly didn’t place high in the rankings that year (nor the year prior), but I held my own on the slopes that afternoon. My competing was more for a chance to breathe fresh air after a year of working behind the bank’s austere walls.

After the competition that day, all the participants went to the nearest bar in hopes of having a few beers to diminish the chill of the snow and to numb our overexerted muscles. I noticed that most of the skiers in the group sat with competitors who had placed similarly in ranking. I suppose to them, it seemed the gentlemanly thing to do, but in my typical fashion, I took a lone seat at the end of the bar.

I was soon accompanied by a young, sandy-haired man, his hair being of that in-between color that is often mistaken for red in certain angles of sunlight. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties and had ruddy cheeks, brightened with the burnt look most of us skiers got that day from exposure to the sun and wind high on the mountain. The skin around his eyes was pale and undamaged from where his ski goggles had protected it. I recognized him as having scored close to my own level.

He struck up a conversation, and I learned he was from Los Angeles and came up for the tournament each year to escape California and clear his mind. He had a quiet demeanor, and I imagined his personality wasn’t suited for such a large city, much as my own is not.

We hadn’t been seated long before we were joined by two boisterous and somewhat intoxicated skiers, one with a military haircut and one with a wispy moustache that seemed to have given up on growing itself out. In their drunken state, they generously bought a round of beers for both myself, the Californian, and several other skiers scattered around the bar. The two had done very well in the tournament and seemed eager to share their good humor. It wasn’t long before a circle of skiers had formed around us, everybody comparing that year’s trails to those of previous competitions.

As often happens with inebriated and adventurous groups like that which we had created, the conversation turned to sharing tales of evading danger and acts of bravado. One skier, an older man with thinning hair, talked about scaring off a mother grizzly and her cub while on a solo camping trip in Washington. Another man, only college-aged or so, recounted his experience nearly drowning during a poorly planned rafting trip down the Rio Grande.

The stories grew more outrageous as more drinks were consumed. I remained silent, as my vault of stories from working at the bank were limited to balancing books and skimming financial records, hardly death-defying.

During a lull in the conversation, the man with the military cut suggested the Californian share a story, as surely he had encountered some wild creatures in that state.

With the group’s attention on him, the Californian slowly set down his glass in a way that silenced the room. It had grown late, and we skiers were the only ones left in the bar. He wiped a bit of the beer’s foam from his lip and seemed to collect himself before beginning.

“I have a story, but it’s not from California. It’s not about bears, or rivers, or anything like that. There aren’t many people who believe me and that is fine. I don’t know that I would, in their position. But I guess there might be some people who don’t believe that man here wrestled that cougar.” The skier in the crowd who’d shared a dubious account of an encounter with a cougar didn’t protest, only laughing good-naturedly.

The Californian remained serious, and kept his eyes lowered as he began.


This is the end of the first half. I will post the second half tomorrow. Thanks for stopping by! Happy reading and writing!

Past the Outline But Before the Draft

Photo on Foter.com via https://pixabay.com/en/users/jarmoluk-143740/

Today’s writing goal seems harmless enough: Begin the rough draft of a short story I’ve had in mind this week.

But as I begin, I start to rethink that adjective . . . harmless? “Mostly” harmless, after all (that is for you, Douglas Adams fans). Getting started is always the hardest part of writing, at least in my case. I am not a great decision maker, an annoying trait not just in my writing but my personal life as well (just ask my friends when we’re trying to decide which restaurant to eat at). When it comes to writing, I sometimes have trouble making all the decisions I need to in order to actually get started.

Today, for instance. I have my story idea, which should mean I am ready to go. I want to write a story about a woman who moves into a house in a small town. As time goes on, she is repeatedly mistaken for the prior occupant of the house, an elderly woman who died recently. She is much younger than the woman who died, but all around town, people inexplicably call her by the same wrong name and ask her about her family, confusing them with relatives of the deceased woman. Things begin to get strange for our dear main character, as you can probably guess. (If you’re wondering where I got such a strange idea from, I read this news story about an adopted woman learning her original birth name after inexplicably being called by that name for years).

I have my (mostly!) outlined plan for the story, but before I jump in and write that first draft, I’m trying to decide on a few things.

Point-of-View

Do I want to go with a first person perspective, with everything told through the main character’s eyes? What the reader is told is what she believes to be true. She could be sane, or unreliable, or somewhere in a realm in between both states, which offers some interesting possibilities.

Or maybe it should be written in third person, with some outsider or omniscient narrator presenting reality to us. A neighbor could be observing the main character from afar, or perhaps she confided in him during a moment of confusion, when she wasn’t sure what was going on in that town. Or possibly writing the story in a traditional format is best, with no fancy tricks up my sleeve, and I just present everything out for the reader as a standard tale.

Tone

When the idea for this story first popped into my head, I imagined it as a creepy story, a kind of chronicle of a woman’s descent into madness. But the more I thought about it, I began to consider maybe going for a less sinister tone and perhaps presenting the story in an absurd, dreamlike state, kind of a fantastical atmosphere. I’m imagining over-the-top characters, sort of a Big Fish, larger-than-life style. There are so many options, it is hard to choose just one, but I also want to be consistent in tone and not switch halfway through the story, as I am sometimes prone to do.

Ending

This part is where my outlined story turns into a “mostly” outlined story. What sort of ending do I want to leave finish the story with? A supernatural conclusion echoing Stephen King’s Carrie at prom or a total, edificial implosion of the house like in the final scenes in Poltergeist? Or maybe I want to end on a hopeful note. Perhaps the main character takes the initiative and exorcises the woman’s spirit from her house, or maybe takes an opposite approach, even befriending the spirit. Or she could flee the premises, leaving the house for someone else to deal with.

As you can see, my writing process can often be a weird mixture of both structured notes but also unplanned changes I make as I actually begin writing. That’s often the fun part of writing for me, believe it or not. I get an idea out of seemingly nowhere a lot of the time, but then I get to take the time to shape it into the form that I want the story to take.

Which is what I am going to do in just a few minutes, once I make a few decisions . . .