'Writing Fiction' by Janet Burroway has been the best book I’ve come across so far to help me out of a slump. It’s a text book that has lots of great exercises as well as explanations of how to get things going, beyond talking about metaphors.
One of the her exercises suggesting sketching out the floor plan of a house you lived in, mark X’s on spots of significance and then write out a tour of the house.
GOING HOME AGAIN
The picture is tinted green on the luggage tag, of the little white lopsided house with the red trim, the second from the end.
It looks so cute, I want to pat it on the head.
Two trees in the front, one bushy with pine cones, the other a large maple, I think, with a swing. But the swing wasn’t there until I was older.
The maple tree has a crook in perfect for climbing, and then sitting. Sitting mostly. With my back against one limb, a book balanced on the other.
But you need a ladder to get up there.
We don’t have a ladder so I get a couple of wobbly chairs and hope they don’t fall over.
No one asks where I am. I want them to wonder. But I stay up there for hours, picking sticky sap off the tips of my fingers.
Watching the tops of people’s heads....curly like a poodle. Shiny pink skull through thin strips of hair. Big ears.
It’s a luxury I never knew about before. Not even coming up to a grown-ups shoulder.
The old man down the street in the house with the crazy Christmas decorations walks by slowly wearing a hat. A gray one that looks old fashioned, like in old movies.
His cane clicks before he steps. He stops under the tree, and looks back down the block. He’s looking for someone, and I don’t know why it makes me sad.
He can’t see me, but I can see him. I hold my breath and concentrate on his grey hat. I’m in the tree. Look up. Come on, look up. I’m up here.
But he keeps shuffling down the street. I feel sad for the old man, waiting for someone, walking by himself. But he’s not alone, while I’m up here watching over him.
From the branches I can see the grey cold stone steps, one- two-three-four. Standing at the top, first day of school. Four years old, one sock lower than the other.
I’m squinting into the sunlight. I don’t like the camera. It’s proof that this is something, when I just want it to be another day.
But I have a brand new yellow backpack. I don’t know what it’s for, but I have to have it. I also have new sneakers, white ones with a pink trim. I’m going to have to play with kids I don’t know.
Mom’s mouth is determined as she takes the picture. She’s nervous. She wants me to look nice. I’m in a skirt. I only wear skirts to church or grandma and grandpa’s. She brushed my hair and put in a barrette. A little red circular one. I get to pick it out. But I don’t get to pick out my clothes. The collar is tight. Too many buttons that I can’t undo on my own. Up to my throat.
Stop fidgeting, she says, probably, from the bottom of the steps. Say cheese.
but I don’t. I don’t like saying cheese sometimes. When mom doesn’t look happy. I know something’s coming that I’m not going to like. I can feel it like butterflies in my stomach.
I just look stunned, disoriented, and not at all impressed.
The carpet in the living room is going to have to go. That’s what mom says to dad. It's beige. I like the scratchy feeling on my legs. I like to run my hands through it. But I’m only allowed after mom vacuums.
The first time I meet the carpet there’s no furniture. It’s still in the other house across the street.
But this is an important day. It’s the first day we have our new house. The new house looks exactly like the old one. But this one is different. This one is all ours, we no longer have a land lord.
We are eating MacDonalds on the carpet, and I have a fish fillet.
We never eat MacDonalds and we never eat on the floor, not at the table, not even on a chair or anything.
Mom puts a blanket down so it’s like a picnic. But I think picnics are supposed to happen outside. So this is a warm picnic. Dad and mom are laughing above the crinkling of the wrappers on the floor.
Hilary is picking the onions off her burger.
Dora doesn’t get MacDonalds. She’s only a baby.
I know this means things are going to be different.
Downstairs is the pull-out couch, peach coloured, it’s still intact. There are no pen marks yet. We never should have got a light coloured couch, but it was on sale.
Every Friday night we get to sleep on the pull out.
We have supper and mom takes the cushions off, puts on sheets, and Hilary and I put on our pyjamas and get under the covers up to our necks. She wants the wall side....and I let her because I’ll get it next time.
Friday is the best night because Full House is on, and we’re allowed to watch it in bed. But then we have to go to sleep. Right to sleep.
Full house is just like our house, kind of. We have a little sister too, but she doesn’t say silly things or put her thumbs up. She’s mostly annoying, especially when she cries. So that’s why she’s not allowed at these sleep overs.
When the show is over the lights go off, and we aren’t supposed to talk, but we’re in the basement, so they can’t hear us talking. They’ll never know. Especially when we do it with our pillows smooshed against our faces.
Whispers under the sheets. One--two--three--four--five, okay, now close your eyes and pretend to sleep.
Are you asleep? Me neither.
Seven thirty is so early.
Let’s sleep back to back so we know each other’s there. Like we’re not just sleeping alone. So even when I close my eyes, I know you’re there and we’re in the basement on the pull-out.
I feel like I could go on forever with this one, there are so many memories, I think this exercise has real potential for the backbone of a short story. However, these particular memories are not exactly riveting. I'd have to expand on them, embellish, or make them up all together. But they're a good jumping-off point. One thing that Janet Burroway stresses is the fact that the truth is usually boring...describing things exactly as they are, without any drama or conflict doesn't make things leap off the page. That's why fiction is so much more riveting. There are kernels of truth, or "truthiness" to quote Stephen Colbert...and you just have to make it better.