Prompt – taking something apart

Prompt: Write about a character taking something apart

It’s considered “cheating” to explain one’s writing in advance because the writing is supposed to stand on its own. I’m gonna do it anyway.

If a second novel is harder to write (whether the first one bombs or succeeds), it might be wise to have a second subject on deck and maybe even some rough notes before finishing the first.

Most of the initial scenes in the piece of historic fiction I’m now editing came in response to prompts. It’s incredible how participating in an AWA class over time can produce a novel.

Lately, I’ve been “getting” scenes of a family living in Massachusetts in the 1970’s. Closer to home in every respect. No research necessary (except maybe for headlines and number one hit songs). No worries about whether or not it is my story to tell.

What follows is a narrator ‘taking apart’ those initial efforts. Believe it or not, it was fun to write.

Listen, listen. You can’t have a character called Bernadette and one called Bridgette. They’re too much the same, even though it might be common to have certain sounds in a family, like yours — K_____y, D____y, and Finny.  And switching out the sex of the oldest child in this fictional family might be interesting to you and maybe even essential in creating distance from your older sister — a person who, after all, had been called not by one or two people but by several, “a monster” —  but not interesting to others. Have you pondered the gender change enough to make Robert credible? How would behaviors that were high risk for a 22 year old woman, for instance, translate to a 22 year old man? They’re overlapping but not congruent, especially when it comes to sex. Also, aggressive belligerence goes one way in a female body and another way in a male body. Have you considered adding: drunken brawls and late night visits to the ER? Instead of lawsuits for eviction and reckless driving, there might be criminal charges of assault and battery.  In other words, by being male, this character would be softened and teased in some regards and badly amped up in others.

And listen, if Maeve is 17, she has to be 17. She can’t go having experiences from her late 20’s. Compression for the sake of a story is one thing, credibility is another.

Start over. A different place. A different family. Make them Polish instead of Irish. Plunk them near Lake Oswego instead of in the Berkshires. I mean, my god, work a little.

The mother could be a drunk instead of the father and let’s make her a low functioning alcoholic instead of a high functioning one. Give the father a shovel instead of a briefcase. Now we’re talking. It’s a miracle if a kid gets to college, not utterly expected and paid for. The failure of birth control instead of its careful insertion. Instead of zero abortions, how about five? And one baby born out of wedlock. The rebellious antics of middle class kids might just bore the shit out of any audience you can name.

Unless you make one of them a terrorist, like Roth did in “American Pastoral.” Then, of course, you’d go back to making them Irish. What is it about the Irish and bombs, anyway? There are MacVeighs on your father’s side, a fact that of course (of course!) led your sister to assert familial ties to the Oklahoma bomber. But there was reputedly a murderer somewhere out west (in the Yukon? Alaska?) during the Gold Rush. Probably called Kevin. Maybe even Mallon. Or was he the victim?

I’ll say this flat out. Do. Not. Write. About. The. Loss. of a Child. Colum McCann’s character losing a son to the IRA in “TransAtlantic.” John Irving’s parents losing TWO children in “A Widow for One Year.” You do not need to spend time there. Better the fucking self-destructive foibles of teenagers who were given most things, than that.

Given most things, including a genetic inclination toward violence and drink.

Mary Mallon. Typhoid Mary. Reading about her is like reading a character study of any number of your relatives. No problem believing genetic links there! A symptom-free, disease vector. A servant in the kitchen. She stuck to her guns, boy! She wasn’t the problem (YOU’RE THE PROBLEM!). Slamming the door on the way out, you imagine, flinging down her apron in rage. Circulating from one kitchen to the next. Cough. Cough. How do you like the soup? Forcing one to wonder, was this vicious disregard for others or blinding belligerence? Does it matter to the dead?

And by the way, winning the lottery a plot does not make. Shit has to HAPPEN. And one thing that happens has to lead to another thing that happens. Even in character-driven fiction, this is true. Forget about striving to articulate how a character’s cluster fuck of impairments stung and slashed at a younger sibling. You might care about capturing the full toxic flavor of it, and no one else. See? Nothing happening.

Throw out those rough beginnings. I beseech you to make an outline. Instead of writing tangled knots, like fabric coming out of the drier in a clump, it’ll be like hanging ribbons of color off a tree — branches there already, waiting for adornment.

14 thoughts on “Prompt – taking something apart

  1. Liz A

    I love reading you … such voice!

    And just a thought … pretty ribbons are worth a glance, but knots make me dig in with focused attention … picking away to find the solution

  2. Joanne

    Are you saying this to yourself or did others say these things to you about what you were writing? I guess it doesn’t matter. Sounds like a visit home. Really. Very very authentic. Glad 3 out of four are dead (in my case).

    1. deemallon

      After I typed this up I realized if this narrator took this thread up with me for real, I’d tell her to shut up. It was just for fun.

    2. deemallon

      I don’t think this narrator’s opinions will have much impact on my writing at all. I commented over in your blog today, BTW, but it vanished. Probably because I had to sign in to google again. I don’t know why. Anyway, I haven’t much felt like cooking lately either.

      1. Joanne

        Try as anon and then add your name I have been allowed to comment on my blog lately which is very odd. Daughter says I did make little treats w leftover pie dough.

  3. Deborah Lacativa

    That’s what’s missing. Someone to talk to, to argue with.
    I forgot that I’m Frankenstein and have this power. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. RainSluice

    This is all very funny! I love that comment, “You could form a committee actually”. Not knowing Deborah. Your writing, Dee, and other’s comments – very engaging and intriguing and funny. The tragedies we may inadvertently foment, inherit, be privy to, and exaggerate if necessary to make a good story… the drama comes from somewhere. Something does has to happen. I will keep this as reminder, because I’ve been sitting on a huge big rag-knot of stories, and the untangling now looks like something I could take on. I got “The World That We Knew” by Alice Hoffman and now all other books are put aside. I believe in magic. Ha. I’ll never forget my therapist explaining to me what magical thinking was, and me thinking “So what about it?”, but pretending to be surprised. I wonder if she knew what I was thinking in that moment. Ha again, one of the best Jewish therapists in NYC, of course he knew.

    1. deemallon

      “The tragedies we may inadvertently foment, inherit, be privy to, and exaggerate if necessary to make a good story… the drama comes from somewhere. “. So well put!

  5. Michelle Slater

    Like I’m standing next to you unseen listening to the wild thought process create and create, dismantle and continue again. It is funny, but I’m not laughing…yet.

    1. RainSluice

      Well, full-disclosure, I wasn’t laughing while I was reading the prompt/response, @Michelle. But I felt relieved when granted permission (by Dee) to see the humor… still, not a belly laugh!


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