And that’s what should happen next in the writing exercise, after the initial exchange. Your partner is to shift the mood…tell you about something he or she is anticipating. Your partner should make it plausible–a special date, a doctor’s appointment, trip, project for school, vacation. Have the person talk about it directly. Jot down their words in quotation marks. Here’s an example in which a friend of the narrator’s daughter happens upon the two of them as the daughter is trying on dresses in a department store. Once you’ve read it go to your written exercise and have your partner give the response of the person you meet:
“Mom, this is Judy–she lives across the hall from me at IU.” Hi, Mrs. Pyne. Andrea, guess what? I’m going next week. Our whole family’s going to Madrid. Daddy got the tickets yesterday. I’m so excited. Oh, that looks cute on you. Does this make me look fat? I need something brighter, don’t you think, brighter–maybe yellow.” Teresa Elquezabal
2.At this point you should have recorded the input from a friend or written on your partner’s paper if you’re both doing this exercise together or have waited another 24 hours and made your own response if you’re doing the exercise by yourself.
When I do this by pairing people up in a seminar, I notice participants really get involved responding to someone else’s character and situation—even more so than they were with their initial writing in this exercise. Why? It’s reaction. And at the point of exchanging papers back again, I tell them, “Whether or not your partner’s response lives up to your expectations, notice that it is your curiosity about their reaction that stimulates your interest. You want to know how your partner has reacted to your piece.”
3.Now to finish this exercise. In the next paragraph have the person who entered the scene, depart. Use any excuse: a phone call, the person’s order comes and he or she has to get back to their table in the restaurant…whatever. Much of writing is how to plausibly get your characters on stage, and then get them off stage. Look at plot in Shakespeare as an excuse for assembling and reassembling different characters in scenes on stage. Respond briefly to this person who has approached you, told you about something about themselves and has now left.
Your mind is free of this interruption so in the next paragraph go back to the emotions with which you started. You can refer to the source of this emotion directly now if you choose or keep it still hidden. Finally write a short final paragraph describing your physical movements as you leave or stay at the location.
Here is an example of a writer responding in her thoughts to someone who has left (an example of the first paragraph of a conclusion):
As she strolled to the exit I thought of Mother’s analysis of her walk: “She moves like one of those tall ships that we saw at the Bi-Centennial celebration in New York…billowing gracefully, but sure of her direction.”
How accurate that is right now, I thought as I watched her progress to the door. She brings a lot of joie de vivre to this business, more than enough for both of us, even when I’m behaving like a drag anchor. She’s good for me…keeps me from hiding in my research all the time. Margo Ahrens
Here is an example of the second paragraph of a conclusion–a writer returning to her original feelings (the woman has received a letter from a friend that arrives after that friend’s death).
I moved the magazine from the top of the pile of mail, and picked up a Kleenex to wipe the cellophane of the cover. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a small envelope and reached for it. It was in Betts’ handwriting and the envelope had the familiar red rose on one corner. My hands started to shake–and I told myself, “This is silly, open it up!” I opened the letter and read about her anticipation of our trip, the joy she felt that Paul had finally retired, and about the trip to Switzerland–they had planned to visit their oldest son. She said how often she remembered our days together at school and how much our friendship had always meant to her. Bonnie Louther
Finally here are these two writers telling about leaving or staying at their locations (examples of final concluding paragraphs):
Example 6 (cont.):
Having fished out money for the wine and tip, I pushed back my stool and walked to the door. Trying to find my keys, I was re-running the interview in my head and had the ar door unlocked before I recalled that I had meant to stop in the biff before leaving. “To go or not to go,” I mumbled as I put the key in the ignition and turned it. I can make it, I told myself and my confidence was rewarded as one green light after another greased my path to the dry cleaners. Margo Ahrens
and, Example 7 (cont.):
I sat back in my chair and sighed–and suddenly felt better. Maybe it was because I had received the letter today. A true friend is never lost. Bonnie Louther
It’s your turn. Write your three paragraphs: having the other person exit (and reacting to the person), returning to your original emotion–now being free to discuss that feeling directly if you choose–and concluding by giving a physical description of leaving the location (if that isn’t appropriate, describe staying). Do this on your paper now.
4.When you have finished it is your task to take this exercise and rework it. Use as much or as little of it as you like. You can add or subtract…change the part your exercise partner wrote or any part you wrote. There are certain dynamics at work; try not to lose these. There’s a past event contrasted with an anticipated one; your personality contrasted with that of the intruder (your partner); thoughts contrasted with spoken words; and motions of people coming together contrasted with those of people departing. These dynamics add reader interest, regardless of content. But, don’t label these things…show them by dramatizing them for your reader.
The best way of doing this revision of the exercise is to go to the place where the scene happens. Incorporate real detail into the fictional account. This establishes instant credibility. You should end up with a little scene that seems complete in itself. It can be one paragraph long or five pages long. Type it up and show it to your exercise partner who will marvel at the result. Here are the revised exercises of two beginning writers you’ve already sampled. You might take a look at the chart (Figure 1). It lists different types of reactions. There can be reactions to events that are in the past, in the present or are anticipated. Reactions can also be to people, places, feelings, dialogue, etc., in the past, present or anticipated in the future.
As you read this revised example try to identify the different types of reactions that convey emotion in each.
Example 3 (complete):
The wind tugged the heavy glass door as Jack entered Schmitty’s. He stood blindly. His yes adjusting to the dark interior, his glasses fogging in the warmth. He ordered a beer, checking the bar for familiar faces.
The cold draft tasted good and he realized he hadn’t eaten anything today. His appetite was gone and he hadn’t slept the night before. Wandering across the bar he found himself in front of the jukebox, his eyes resting on B6–“Just Like a Woman.”
They had heard Rod Stewart sing it in person at an outdoor concert the summer he and Louise first met. He remembered how bright the stars were that clear night as they lay on their backs in the grass, holding hands and listening to music. The sweet smell of pot hung in the air, in those days nobody bothered about reefer. After the concert they had a picnic while they waited for the huge crowd to clear. Louise had packed cold chicken, watermelon, and chocolate chip cookies–his favorite. By the time they got home, streaks of pink and orange were slicing the morning sky. A slight smile crossed Jack’s face.
“Hey, BAKER!” hollered Randy from across the bar. “I almost missed you in the corner over there.” He came over and sat with him. “We must be the first ones here. Ralph and Larry said they were coming and Mick of course–it’s his birthday he better show.” Randy looked at Jack, “Bad day?”
“No, bad marriage,” said Jack. “Louise told me last night that she wants out.”
What kind of person wrote this piece? Example 3 was done by a 19-year-old girl. It shows you don’t need to be limited to your age or gender. She is very perceptive, and though she might never have been left by her spouse, I guarantee there is some sense of genuine loss she is making use of here.
In doing this exercise in a seminar setting, people are often surprised that they are into a story before they realize it and that they are writing about subjects they care about, even though that isn’t what they thought they were going to write about. Exchanging papers quickens this development and takes things in a less predictable direction. Sometimes people are fearful of this exchange, and it’s one of the reasons I think it’s essential for less experienced writers to do it.
When you give your story to another, you lose control. The same situation occurs whenever a writer lets another read what he or she has written. The reader may misunderstand the piece or interpret it to mean something beyond what the writer intended. One way to avoid this fear is to not show your writing to others. Another way is for the writer to simply not write.
The same thing happens when characters take on a life of their own, leading the writer into areas where the writer is uncomfortable–again there is a possible loss of control. But counterbalancing this are tremendous advantages: Throwing ourselves a curve sometimes tricks the truth out of us. We might not choose the challenges of a given day, but these challenges bring out the real us. Further, an audience can give us feedback that helps us clarify what we’re writing, not only for them, but also more importantly, for ourselves. That’s invaluable. In sharing what we write, we also discover that people have much more in common than we usually think they do. That feeling of fellowship encourages us to be less defensive, to open up even more.