Thursday, January 3, 2013

Writing Tests

Every few months, while I'm doing this fiction a day, I try to do writing challenges. What this usually means is that I spend more time writing things outside than inside my comfort zone. Which is perfectly fine by me. One criticism I always receive, and one I think most writers is that they don't write the opposite gender well. The sneaky way around this is to minimize the role of that gender in your stories. Sneaky doesn't mean good. Anyway, below the fold, the first three pages from this year's page-a-day work. I don't like it, but I think it is a good start.

I actually don't like the first three pages I've written this year. Which makes me sad. Last year, one of the first projects I started was Across the Gap, which I became very happy with as a working draft, and at some point, I'd like to go back and revise and edit in detail.

But, for now, I'm not sure -what- exactly is going on with this story. It's... very stream of consciousness, which is part of the reason I don't like it. I hated To The Lighthouse, with a passion. I feel like I can redeem it with the punchline at the end, but even that feels weak, since it doesn't tie in with the opening story at all. It really feels a long reach for a flat joke.

* * *
Men, all in all, have it easy, my mom always told me. The speech would inevitably come before my daddy and her would be going to some classy function — a wedding, a funeral, a holiday party, a cocktail party, the opera, whatever. “Lucy,” she told me, “When men want people to treat them with respect, they just have to tie a piece of cloth around their necks and tuck in their shirts.”

Women, she explained, are judged infinitely more harshly. The difference between an appropriate dress and accessories for a given event always seemed mysterious to daddy. “Just wear the black one,” he’d say. She’d scoff at him and shoo him downstairs in his dark, navy blue suit. He’d leisurely take his time looking in his reflection of the dining room hutch where we kept the fancy dishes. While whistling what I was pretty sure was a dirty drinking song, he would slowly tie a bowtie. Then, when he heard mom coming down the stairs, he would quickly untie it, pull another tie from his pocket and deftly tuck in a Windsor knot.

Mom would always come down the stairs, her heels echoing through the house. When I was a little girl, I’d sit waiting in the living room to see her come down so I could ooh and ah at her evening gowns. Some nights she’d throw her wrap over my shoulders while she and dad talked with the sitter and gave out their numbers and the number of the place they were going. They’d tell me they loved me and that they’d see me in the morning.

Then, if the sitter was a good one, as soon as they were gone, we’d order pizza. If it wasn’t too late, the sitter would come in the backyard with Rusty (our bearded collie) and play fetch before what I started calling the first reel. We called him Rusty because instead of the gray, metal color, his brothers and sisters had, he came out with a brownish coat and white beard. After a rigorous game of fetch, Rusty would sit by my feet and watch Disney movies until the sitter decided to put her foot down. If it was a school night, I’d do my homework during the boring parts or the stupid songs.

By the time I was old enough to not need a sitter, Rusty was old enough to be content with just a few quick rounds of fetch. We graduated from Disney movies to classic movies and whatever my girlfriends and I could smuggle from our parents. I never got into theater productions turned into movies; I thought the only redeeming part of Romeo and Juliet was Leonardo DiCaprio, and even then, only a little. When my mom tried to convince me to watch Hamlet one night with her and dad, I tried to explain that film was different from theater. “You can do things with a camera and lighting that you can’t do in a theater; you can get so close to the actors. It just isn’t the same.” My mom said maybe I just hated Shakespeare. She might have had a point. Sometimes, when mom and dad would go out, he would leave out some of his favorite movies out for me to watch. He had terrible taste, but it was fun convincing my girlfriends that we should all watch Schwarzenegger movies.

I don’t know exactly when I decided I wanted to make movies. When I wrote that in one of my high school essays, the teacher thought I meant I wanted to be an actress. She even suggested that I audition for some Tennessee Williams play my senior year. I didn’t want to be on the stage or in front of the camera; I wanted to make the magic happen. I wanted to be one of the people behind the scenes. The first movie I made was in my senior year of high school. I made copies of a bunch of the home videos that dad had taken while I was young and worked with some software programs that mom had been persuaded to give me for my birthday that year. With a great bit of effort, and after shooting some of my own home video with dad’s camcorder, I made my first movie. It was the story of a girl and her dog, and I premiered it to my parents and Rusty after a single round of catch.

We really couldn’t call him Rusty any more. My mom had insisted that animals didn’t go gray in middle school when I said that I thought Rusty was getting gray hairs, but by high school, his fur was salt and red peppered. Rusty, in his old age, had taken to sitting on the couch when we watched movies together, putting his head in my lap. He barked once during the film, right after he had had a barking fit on the screen. My dad hadn’t told me that dogs were not fans of baths when I was old enough to give Rusty his first bath. I should have been suspicious when he stood back with the camera, but I think in the end, my six-year-old self ended up wetter than the dog in that bath-turned-wrestling-match gone wrong.

“That was very nice,” my mom said. It really wasn’t. It was the sort of amateur thing that people did of their vacations and put on projectors. The neighbors always pretended that it was very nice, but you never really liked the fact that Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So went to Such-and-Such. You usually just went to be polite and because it was a party. And you should always go to parties when you are invited. Because, if you didn’t, that was rude. Being rude was unacceptable. “Especially when there’s free booze,” dad said.

When the movie was over, I started to rewind it manually. I knew it was a bad idea, but I liked the feeling of working the tape. The summer of senior year I interned at the local public access station and dated one of the cameramen there. He was in his early twenties and had a motorcycle. It was one of those things that seemed like a really good idea at the time, but he turned out to be a bit of a jerk. Which helped, I guess, give me practice for the parade of jerks I’d date throughout college. He was the only one I dated with a motorcycle though; they terrified me.

I remember the day we broke up; it was the day dad and I went to go have Rusty put down. Jake wouldn’t come with us. I asked him twice, and he said that he thought it really should be a family affair. I broke up with him then and there, and that night I sat up watching my first home movie on the couch, hugging a pillow and crying. I was more upset over losing Rusty than Jake; Rusty had loved me unconditionally and had been with me for as long as I could remember. Jake didn’t even qualify as a summer fling.

Once I dumped him, the internship was actually a lot better. I found I could focus better, and I was a natural with the software and technology. I think it was the fact my mom indulged me, even when she thought she shouldn’t. For my parent’s anniversary that year, I made copies of their wedding videos and some of our family videos and put them together with interviews with my remaining dad’s mom and my mom’s parents. I spent weeks up until two or three in the morning at the station using their equipment after hours, but it was worth it. I think when my mom told me that it was very nice, she meant it this time.

After that internship, I left Virginia for college out in California. I believed I’d have a real chance to do something in film, like everyone who went to California. I graduated in the top 10 percent of my class. Then, like everyone else pursuing the dream of working in Hollywood, I started waiting tables.

* * *

Waiting tables isn’t the only thing I have going for me, though. I only do that part time because it is expensive to live in the city. I earn the big bucks helping the evening news. Ok, that’s a bit disingenuous. By evening news I mean the infomercials when even insomniacs are probably sleeping. But, when I email mom and dad, I feel it is perfectly fine to fudge those facts just a little. It is the sort of white lie that lets them feel like all that money we spent putting me through college wasn’t a total waste.

I’m not a big fan of lying. I learned from watching television growing up that lying only causes more problems than it is worth. I mean, obviously I’d lie if it was to hide Jews from Hitler or some other ridiculous scenario. That’s just common sense. In the general course of the day though, I don’t believe you should lie.

Well, except when dealing with men. One guy at work — the waitressing job, not the real job (for a working definition of real) — for example. He’s been hitting on me for months now, and I really don’t want to make things awkward at the restaurant. It’s an Olive Garden, so the tips are great, so I really don’t want to cause any rows. He’s asked me out three times now, and each time I’ve given him a weak excuse. Nothing so obvious as “I’m doing my hair,” but still, I’d think he could take the hint.

Each time has gotten worse and worse. Last week, my excuse was that I had to bake cookies for the church bake sale. I had two days to find and join a church holding a bake sale because he said he would come visit me. I paid my roommate to do the baking while I was helping with the infomercial lighting.

“I don’t know what to bake,” I told Christine as I was heading out the door. “Something Episcopalian.”

“I’m not baking anything with horses.”

“That’s equestrian. There’s money on the fridge, just buy something to bake. Make sure that it looks like it would take all night,” I said.

“I don’t see why you don’t just tell him you have a night job.”

Sometimes, I hated Christine. But, on the bright side, I sold all of her cookies and some fancy cake while I was there. The dean said I was one of the most generous new comers to the church that he’d ever had the fortune of tending to. I remember the great big bear hug he gave everyone as we were cleaning up after the sale. Apparently, I had helped raise over a hundred dollars to fund a private school for Episcopal kids. It actually did feel good to have done such a nice thing for total strangers. The dean had pulled me aside and confided something else to me:

“Lucy,” he said, “Thank you again. Those cookies were amazing; ever since Mrs. Brodswell passed on our bake sales have been profoundly sour. I was afraid this year we would have to sell magazines for the school.”

“It was no problem sir,” I said. “I’m glad I could help.”

“Will we see you Sunday?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t make it. I have a night job.”

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