Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Retreat and Forms

This past weekend I had the opportunity to go on a creative writing retreat for my department. If you think writers are insane when there's one of them, well then, you should see what happens when we all get together. We hike in rivers. My shoes were soaked, but hey, they were clean. We went on 3 hikes and visited a lookout point at a national park, and before each hike we would be given a writing prompt. We would walk and think about the prompt, and then when we rested we would write on that prompt. We also talked a lot, mostly about our varied writing projects.

We were supposed to write about nature. One prompt asked us to write about nature in a way other than we usually do, so if you consider nature this source of poetic wisdom, be cynical. And vice-versa. Another one asked use to ask questions about the location we were in and also to mentally peel back layers of time to think about how past people or future people might see the landscape. I don't usually write about nature, although I love it, so these prompts helped me find a way into parts of my mind I don't usually use.

Likewise, I'm currently in a class that is making me experiment with forms. I mean, I have to write 2 short fiction pieces every week that use a form other than the typical narrative style, with exposition and dialogue leading from beginning to end. The forms I've used so far include an index (using numbers to carry the story), lists (simply put, using long, varied lists to add to the story), fable (short, some kind of moral, simple characters), telling a story using only questions, and telling a story in the form of directions to someone. My directions story was titled "How To Be Batman", and is dedicated to one of my friends who shall remain nameless. But, I will say, she is super-awesome, like Batman.

This week I had to write an anecdote. That's a short story meant to be conversational and to make some kind of point. It also had to be fictional (not something I lived through) and interesting enough not to have to end with the phrase, "And then I found 5 dollars." I read my anecdote in class, and it got a good response, so now you get to read it. I'm sorry. That's the way my blog works. So, here it is:

The Bottle-Thrower

            A few years ago, my husband and I rented a house at Cape May in New Jersey. It wasn’t beachfront; that would have been too expensive, as we wanted the house during the busy summer months. When I wanted the ocean to inspire my writing, I would take my notebook and bike down to the beach in the early morning while Zack, my husband, was still asleep. I would find a flat area of sand and write ideas for new stories, poems, or whatever I felt like writing that day.
            On the first day I was there, I was in the middle of sketching out a plot for a fantasy novel when an elderly man rode up the boardwalk on his bicycle. He parked at the end of a long pier, threw down his bike, and raced to the end of the pier. When he reached the end, he pulled a brown glass bottle out of a bag slung around his shoulders and threw it into the ocean, as far out as he could fling it.
            The next day, the man did the same thing, in the early morning as the tide was going out. And the next day, and the next day, and the next. Every morning for two months it was the same thing: the old man would bike to the pier, run to the end, and hurl a bottle into the sea like it was a Molotov cocktail.
            One morning I went down to the beach and watched for the old man’s daily visit, but he didn’t come. He didn’t come the next day, either. When I came home and told Zack, he pulled out the paper and turned to obituaries. There he was. The old man’s name was George Manwell, and he was eighty-seven years old. He was unmarried and had no children that anyone knew of, and had been an investment banker in Trenton before retiring to Cape May. Apparently, he had a strong love of the sea. But nothing in the obit explained George’s mad dash to the sea every morning, bottle in hand.
            Zack and I, talking it over, decided it must have been his form of a will, a way to leave behind his legacy even after death. Each bottle probably had a life story or a photograph in it.
            That night a giant summer storm churned up the ocean. When I went down to the beach that morning to write, the sand was littered with brown glass bottles. I wandered the beach for what seemed like hours, picking up the bottles and examining them. Although the wax seal over the mouth of each one was tight and unbroken, every single bottle was completely empty.

That's an anecdote. I like writing in these different forms because 1) I feel like I'm learning new ways to ply my craft and 2) they are forcing me to get more creative with what I write. The next form is describing a scene, like a picture or screenshot. Not really a narrative, yet, but it can be based on how I direct the reader's eye around my described scene. It's creative writing weightlifting, as was the whole retreat weekend. I'm sore now, but I'm sure I'll be stronger for it.

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