In my first year of college I took a creative writing course. Blindly reaching, I had an inkling that I might enjoy it but had never fully flexed my creative muscles in that way before. Long story short, I enjoyed the course but entirely lacked the patience required of even the most fundamental kinds of writing. One great sign of that to me was the fact that I barely cracked open my writing textbooks. All the greats concur that in order to be a great writer you must be a great reader (and I would add: in order to be a writer you must be a reader, period).
That all being said, I finally got around to reading one of my creative writing texts. It is a paperback entitled, “Making Shapely Fiction” by Jerome Stern.
What a fool I was. What an utter fool. Stern is a genius, and I thought it better to do what instead of reading my textbooks? Strum a guitar? Talk to my girlfriend?
One of Stern’s central ideas (and clearly implied in his title) is that fiction writing has, or at least can be understood to have, shapes. Just as a visual artist will begin at her canvas with general shapes that she molds and brushes into portraits, landscapes, etc., so too does the fiction writer have the opportunity to employ “shapes,” as it were, into his writing.
For example, one of Stern’s shapes is the “Snapshot.” In this the writer will focus upon single moments (e.g. crises, revealing incidents, or epiphanies) and string them out throughout time. Stern says to think of the story as a series of public and private snapshots, of pictures taken at crucial moments. Real photographs, he says, are silent testimonials (think of writing photographs). The writer is to let the snapshots do the telling instead of forcing circumstance, dialogue, or otherwise.
Here is my “Snapshot”:
Rachel stared down the barrel of her father’s gun. A fine cloth was strewn to its side, doing little to protect and cover the weapon. It sat on its side on her mother’s nightstand and she was crouched down on her knees studying it with her hands behind her back. She turned her head to the side and attempted to line up the point at the top of the barrel with the lever she saw near the handle of the gun. She moved closer, ever so slowly, knowing only the distant sound it made from over the hill in the prairie. Her mother could be heard calling her name from the kitchen. Rachel remained fixated.
School let out and Rachel sprinted home. She huffed quick and chaotically, her arms swung wildly at her sides. Through the front door and into her bedroom, she flung her book bag upon her bed. Her algebra textbook spilled out with two dulled pencils and a calculator. Her face went planted straight into her pillow and she sobbed silently. Her mother could not know. She was so hurt she could die, her makeup smearing the white linen. The day’s events ran through her mind, and she parsed every single second of it. As she did this she began to trade sorrow for anger and fury. Little moans of anguish and ecstatic pain spurted through her nostrils and tightly pursed lips. Tears had all but completely covered her face. Her father was not an angry man, but even he had times when he removed the cherry-handled revolver from its hiding place beneath his bed to relieve stress.
Seven deeply carved grooves hid along the bottom of her wall behind her bed. She had become good at silently inching her bed from the concrete wall without waking anybody up. She doubted many slept so she knew her movement had to be utterly noiseless. Every Sunday, following mass, breakfast, library hour, exercise, and dinner, she made it a tradition to cut and bore a new notch. Knowing how many weeks had passed gave her a sense of sanity. She started as far to the left as she could manage knowing she would eventually need the entire wall. She hid the nail she pried out of a wooden bench in the yard in a hole she made in her mattress facing the wall.
Her graying hair had not flowed so freely in decades. The prairie and her old Kentucky home looked just as she remembered. Each morning she walked alone along the perimeter her father came to own before he died. Her mother’s garden had long-since died away too. All that remained were weeds and dull patches of hardened soil.