During the second half of senior year, I learned of a one week summer program for creative writing for high school students called Write Moves. I wasn’t sure if I would be allowed to apply since I was graduating, but even as a rising college freshman I was eligible to attend. I was one of 8 students accepted into the program.
This was my first big road trip by myself. I drove independently from South Carolina to Georgia College and State University, about 2.5 hours away using written directions. This was before having a GPS system in the car.
We had a lot of unusual writing exercises. It was an interesting departure from what I experienced at Governor’s School. There was at least one stretch of 10 minutes where we sat outside and listened to our environment and wrote down everything we observed, all the sensory details that stood out to us. Just a little something to get you in tune with your surroundings. Maybe a phrase or two would jump out and spark a writing idea.
When our time was up, we went around the group and shared our lists. Each person’s was slightly different, even though we were in the same general area. Maybe someone was sitting next to an air conditioning unit that made noise that another person sitting further away wouldn’t have paid attention to. Some referenced a passing emergency vehicle siren while others ignored it. It was interesting to see, in a very controlled way, how each person will react and interpret the environment differently. Certainly things will stand out, even become an irritation, while other elements are overlooked.
Another writing exercise involved making a list of items you might find in the ground if you dug 5 feet deep, 10 feet and beyond. Mine were very random, but I remember including “remains of a pet contained in a shoebox” because we certainly buried our pets in the backyard, and something along the lines of “fossilized toe nail.” Equal parts gross, weird and probably true. Who thinks of stuff like that? Certainly creative and part of an unusual list.
The coolest, most fruitful exercise meant creating a work of fiction. We were given a page of 12-16 headshots of people. A collection of men and women of different ages and ethnicities. We were told to choose two people from the page and create an environment where they would meet and interact. It was a great assignment to have because there was a starting point. You didn’t have to create characters from scratch, but you had a visual to jumpstart the writing process.
I didn’t consider myself a strong fiction writer because long stories required character arcs and believable character behavior. I struggled with focusing on descriptions instead of dialogue; I relied heavily on dialogue. Not dialogue that was particularly important but making sure every character says “hey” or every character in a scene has a role even if it does nothing to move the story forward. I guess that was my way of not wanting people to be left out, but it doesn’t make for compelling reading.
I viewed my attempts at fiction writing as a valuable means of personal escape. My stories weren’t something that another person would find interesting, but they enabled me to get lost in my own little world. I wrote plenty of stories during high school. Several have been kept that are forty or more pages long on the computer, single spaced. Looking back, the content generally makes me cringe but I am impressed with how each story was different, with unique problems to solve.
But this assignment wasn’t a full book. There wasn’t a length requirement. We just needed to satisfy the minimum expectation of getting two characters to interact on page.
Looking back it’s a good piece. It’s strong. It’s descriptive. You can visualize the scene as these characters meet. And it ends with the first character softening his attitude. All good things.
I remember being happy with how it turned out, but it was more or less viewed as a fluke in my fiction writing abilities.
Which makes me think I shouldn’t have been so focused on big scale writing like novels but that short stories were equally acceptable. You know, you have to find a niche that works for you rather than fighting to make it work.
A 4 inch ball will not fit into a 3 inch round opening. No matter how hard you apply pressure, it’s not going to work. But a 2 inch ball fits easily. You have to change your perspective and approach. I wish I had done that.
The Black and White Bench
Brown, decaying park benches litter the edge of the sidewalk. A man rests on one, his snow colored hair contrasting with the images spray painted black on the backrest. Ignoring the rustle of squirrels picking acorns and dashing into the bushes, the nasal voices of people passing by, he continues reading the newspaper, brief case heavy on his lap. Headlines of candy store robberies and assaults frame front page.
Nine black boys, laughing, yelling, talking of their moves on the court, walk past the old man. The youngest hesitates. Small eyes dart from the bench to his friends. They near the end of the park, not realizing one is missing.
The man reads the same article over and over, concentrating on memorizing each word. He offers a quick glance over when the boy sits beside him, but says nothing.
The boy squirms in his seat, pulling at his faded red shirt. He notices the worn suit the man wears. Pant leg is fringed. Maybe a dog mistook it for a chew toy. He notices that his glasses never slip from his wrinkled nose despite slight shakes of the head. He stares as the man turns the page. His mouth drops open to speak but hangs there, tongue caught in throat.
Why is this scrawny boy looking at me? Can’t he see that I’m trying to read? Go away! The man skims over the classifieds and flips to the obituaries.
More people walk by and the boy watches them, observing their clean shirts and newly purchased shoes. Once again he attempts to talk and with a hesitant pause says, “I, uh…I don’t got a granddaddy.”
The man pauses, regrets his earlier thoughts and looks over from his paper. A slow smile spreads across his face and he scoots over to the boy, remembering that he didn’t get to know his grandfather either. Together they share the comics.
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